BAMAKO (Reuters) - Military action involving unidentified aircraft took place overnight in northern Mali where a French national is believed held by al Qaeda, Malian officials said on Thursday.
Shots were fired in the operation late on Wednesday which took place days before a deadline set by the Islamist group’s North African wing for killing 78-year-old Michel Germaneau, who was seized on April 22 in northern Niger.
“There were clashes in the area, shots were heard. We don’t know if it was clashes between soldiers and the hostage-takers,” said a senior official in the Kidal region of northern Mali, close to the border with Niger and Algeria.
“There were lots of comings and goings of military airplanes at the airport of Tessalit,” the source added. Separately, a military source in Bamako confirmed there had been clashes.
A regional security source said a military operation linked to the French hostage had taken place but it was not clear which country’s forces were involved or whether it had succeeded.
Spain’s El Pais daily quoted diplomatic sources as saying French special forces had staged a dawn attack aimed at freeing Germaneau, killing six terrorists but finding no sign of the hostage or of the base where he was believed to be held, and which they had located with U.S. help.
It said the Spanish government was informed just before the operation and was deeply concerned for the safety of two Spanish hostages believed to have been held by the same group for the last eight months.
No one was available at the Spanish Foreign Ministry to comment on the report.
A spokesman for the French armed forces headquarters in Paris said: “For the moment, we have nothing to communicate on the matter. We don’t have enough elements.”
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) gave France 15 days from July 12 to arrange a prisoner exchange and said French President Nicolas Sarkozy would be responsible for the life of Germaneau, a retired engineer who had worked in the Algerian oil sector.
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.
Earlier, the French Foreign Ministry said Paris was working to free Germaneau but would remain discreet about its methods to ensure success.
“(Our team) is mobilized to come to the help of our citizen,” a ministry spokeswoman told reporters.
Niger military sources said earlier they had no information on the whereabouts of the Frenchman, but that leaders across the region, including Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, were playing a role in negotiations.
“It’s true that the ultimatum is nearing, but I’m certain diplomacy will prevail,” said a Niger army officer. “Mali’s head of state is fighting for that and he is being helped by a few of his regional counterparts.”
France has in the past launched military operations to free hostages. Last year, navy commandos intervened to rescue tourists kidnapped off the coast of Somalia.
This month Mali invited Algerian forces to pursue into its territory al Qaeda insurgents sought for the killing of 11 Algerian paramilitary police.
Asked if Algeria had taken part in the latest action in northern Mali, an Algerian security source told Reuters on Thursday: “Algeria has not and will not fight terrorism outside its territory. This is a golden principle and we stick to it.”
Reporting by John Irish in Paris, David Lewis in Dakar and Abdoulaye Massalaatchi in Niamey; writing by Mark John, editing by Andrew Roche