By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council urged countries on Monday to stop the payment of kidnap ransoms to extremist groups like al Qaeda, which have earned hundreds of millions of dollars from such crimes.
Although states are already required not to pay kidnap ransoms under an anti-terrorism resolution adopted in 2001, the British-drafted resolution was designed to increase political pressure on countries not to pay ransoms. The resolution creates no new legal obligations.
"We estimate that in the last three and a half years, al Qaeda-affiliated and other Islamist extremist groups have collected at least $105 million," British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters.
"It is therefore imperative that we take steps to ensure that kidnap for ransom is no longer perceived as a lucrative business model and that we eliminate it as a source of terrorist financing," he said. "We need to break that cycle."
The United States has estimated militant groups have received $120 million over the past decade, including ransoms paid to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The United States and Britain do not pay ransoms, but some European governments do.
"Hostage takers looking for ransoms distinguish between those governments that pay ransoms and those that do not - and that they make a point of not taking hostages from those countries that refuse to make concessions," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said in a statement.
"Every ransom paid to a terrorist organization encourages future kidnapping operations," she said.
The resolution said member nations should "prevent terrorists from benefiting directly or indirectly from ransom payments or from political concessions and to secure the safe release of hostages."
It also urges countries to encourage the private sector to follow relevant guidelines and good practices for preventing and responding to kidnappings by extremist groups.
The council said that ransom payment "incentivizes future incidents of kidnapping for ransom."
French President Francois Hollande has said Paris ended a policy of paying ransoms for hostages, but suspicion that France still does so - despite official denials - has been a source of tension with the United States.
Last year, France brushed off an allegation by a former U.S. diplomat that it paid a $17 million ransom in vain for the release of three hostages abducted in 2010 from Niger.
A confidential Nigerian government report seen by Reuters showed that Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram was paid an equivalent of around $3.15 million by French and Cameroonian negotiators before freeing seven French hostages last April.
The U.N. Security Council resolution echoes a commitment made by the Group of Eight powerful nations - the United States, Russia, Britain, Canada, Germany, France, Italy and Japan - in a communiqué in June.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Leslie Adler)