PARIS/NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - France and Mauritania said on Friday they carried out a military operation against al Qaeda’s North African wing, believed to be holding a 78-year-old French hostage in the desert Sahel region.
Mauritania said six Islamists were killed in the attack, but French officials said they had no word on the fate of Michel Germaneau, a retired engineer kidnapped on April 22 and held by al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM.
The dawn raid took place on Thursday amid calls for increased cooperation to tackle Islamists but it appears to have angered Mali, which was not involved, and Spain, which also has hostages held by another al Qaeda faction in the region.
The French Defense Ministry said the army gave technical and logistical support to Mauritanian forces in an operation to prevent an attack by AQIM against the West African state.
“The terrorist group targeted by the Mauritanian army is the one that executed a British hostage a year ago and has refused to give proof of life or engage in negotiations to release our compatriot Michel Germaneau,” the French ministry said.
It did not say whether the hostage had been located or where the military operation took place. But it said Mauritania’s action had “neutralized” the group.
Asked if France had any proof Germaneau was alive, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said: “We are working on it.”
Mauritania’s Interior Minister issued statement on Friday confirming that its forces had, with French assistance, launched a dawn raid on a group of fighters in Mali on Thursday.
Six Islamists were killed and a significant amount of explosives, ammunition and intelligence recovered, Interior Minister Mohamed Ould Boilil told reporters in Nouakchott.
French daily Liberation’s well-informed defense blog said French special operations commandos took part in the operation and had been on a mission in Mauritania for several months.
West African nations and foreign security services are struggling to clamp down on several factions of al Qaeda’s regional arm operating in remote corners of the Saharan nations, prompting calls for better coordination.
But Mali said its forces were not involved in the operation, even though local officials said on Thursday that unidentified aircraft involved were using an airport in the country’s north.
“We learned about it through the press, that is why there is confusion,” a defense ministry official told Reuters.
“It is true that there are agreements on the right of pursuit across borders, but in most cases, army chiefs are informed. This was not the case,” the official added.
Mauritania’s defense minister flew to Mali on Friday.
Spain’s El Pais daily quoted diplomatic sources on Thursday as saying the Spanish government had been informed at the last minute but not consulted about the operation, and was upset because the raid could increase the risk to the lives of two Spanish hostages held for the last eight months by AQIM.
Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega on Friday said the Spanish hostages were not affected.
“The two Spanish aid workers are well and (their) kidnappers ... are not the same as those of the French citizen,” she said.
AQIM set a deadline next week to kill Germaneau, who was seized in northern Niger, unless its demands for a prisoner swap were met. It said if French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not respond, he would have committed the same “folly” as former British prime minister Gordon Brown.
Islamists killed British captive Edwin Dyer last year after Britain refused to give in to its demands.
Security sources say another, less hardline faction of the organization is believed to be holding the two Spanish hostages.
Governments have little influence in the desert region where Germaneau was seized and bandits, smugglers, former rebels and groups linked to al Qaeda operate. But they have opened a joint military headquarters in southern Algeria to combat the threat.
The militants in the Sahara have so far not staged any large-scale attacks. But Western diplomats say the cash they are accumulating from ransom payments is strengthening the group.
Additional reporting by Raquel Castillo in Madrid, David Lewis in Dakar and Paul Taylor in Paris; Editing by Giles Elgood