PARIS France is at war with al Qaeda's North African branch and will intensify military support for governments in the region combating the Islamist fighters, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on Tuesday.
He was speaking in a radio interview a day after President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed that a 78-year-old French hostage kidnapped in Niger and held by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had been killed following a failed French rescue mission.
"We are at war with al Qaeda and that's why we have been supporting Mauritanian forces fighting al Qaeda for months," Fillon told Europe 1 radio, saying that AQIM consisted of about 400 fighters operating in a desert area the size of Europe.
Asked what Sarkozy meant when he said the killing of retired engineer Michel Germaneau would not go unpunished, the prime minister said: "It means the fight against terrorism will continue and will be reinforced."
He declined to give details for security reasons. However, he stressed the government's policy remained to negotiate with hostage takers whenever possible to save the lives of French citizens.
Asked whether Paris would retaliate militarily, he said: "France does not practice revenge."
Sarkozy has said he decided to launch a raid into Mali with Mauritanian forces last Thursday only after failing to establish any negotiating channel with the kidnappers and because he feared for the hostage's life after an al Qaeda ultimatum.
The opposition Socialists said they would not criticize the government's action in the hostage affair. Only two small far left parties have condemned the use of military force.
"We have no quarrel to pick provided everything is done to protect both the security of our fellow citizens ... and of French territory," Socialist party spokesman Benoit Hamon told France-Inter radio.
Malian officials said they were not informed about the raid, which went beyond the hot pursuit covered by regional defense accords.
Fillon said France was on maximum security alert and several attempted attacks were thwarted on French soil and in neighboring countries each year.
However, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he saw no increased threat of terrorism in France in the wake of the killing of Germaneau, who was kidnapped in Niger in April.
"I don't think we have the slightest bit of evidence of an increased danger," Kouchner told RTL radio in an interview.
The foreign minister was speaking from Mali after being sent to the Sahel region on Monday by President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss increased security measures for French nationals.
Kouchner said he had not urged French nationals to leave the Sahel but had asked that they take increased safety precautions.
Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure said late on Monday his country was committed to fight terrorism in the Sahel but reiterated a plea for "thorough regional cooperation".
Other officials were more blunt in their complaints over the sidelining of Mali, currently seen as a weak link in fighting AQIM due to a failure to crack down on groups based in the north and reported links between some authorities and Islamists.
"We do not understand why, in the case of Germaneau, France leaves us to one side and launches a military operation with Mauritania, which ended up being a failure," a senior official in Mali's defense ministry told Reuters.
"Everyone knows that the failure of the operation guaranteed the death of the hostage."
The minister said he had been told that Germaneau was killed a long way from the area where the Franco-Mauritanian raid took place, but it was not clear when.
"Was he dead before this operation? Did he die afterwards? I don't know," he said.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Vicky Buffery in Paris; Editing by Myra MacDonald)