PARIS (Reuters) - France said on Friday it took part in a Mauritanian military operation against al Qaeda’s North African wing, believed to be holding a 78-year-old French hostage in the desert Sahel region.
But a terse Defense Ministry statement, issued a day after reports of the clash emerged from Mali, gave no word of the fate of Michel Germaneau, a retired engineer kidnapped on April 22 by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
“(We) confirm that the French army gave technical and logistical support to a Mauritanian operation to prevent an attack by AQIM against Mauritania,” the statement said.
Malian officials said on Thursday the military swoop involving unidentified aircraft took place in northern Mali where the French national was believed to have been held.
“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.
Spain’s El Pais daily quoted diplomatic sources on Thursday as saying French special forces had staged a dawn attack aimed at freeing Germaneau, killing six militants but finding no sign of the hostage or of the base where he was thought to be held. El Pais said French forces located the base with U.S. help.
It said 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.
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.
AQIM set a deadline next week to kill Germaneau, who was seized on April 22 in northern Niger, unless its demands for a prisoner swap were met.
It gave France 15 days from July 12 to arrange an exchange and said French President Nicolas Sarkozy would be responsible for Germaneau’s life.
He is the latest in a string of Western hostages who have fallen prey to a new tactic to secure funding used by armed groups in the region, often claiming allegiance to al Qaeda.
AQIM released a picture and audio of Germaneau in May in which he said he had a serious medical condition, and urged Sarkozy to find a “good solution” for him.
It said if Sarkozy did not respond, he would have committed the same “folly” as former British prime minister Gordon Brown.
AQIM killed British captive Edwin Dyer last year after Britain refused to give in to its demands. Regional security sources said the Frenchman is being held by same harder wing of two AQIM factions.
Mali, Niger, Algeria and Mauritania have opened a joint military headquarters in southern Algeria.
Governments have little influence in the desert region where Germaneau was seized and bandits, smugglers, former rebels and groups linked to al Qaeda operate.
The militants in the Sahara have so far not staged any large-scale attacks. But Western diplomats say the cash they are accumulating from a series of kidnappings of foreigners will make them a more potent threat.
Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar and Paul Taylor in Paris; Editing by Paul Taylor and Mark Heinrich