PARIS/NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Paris said on Saturday it had no news on the fate of a French hostage held by al Qaeda, after French special forces and Mauritanian troops attacked a camp run by the Islamists in the Sahara desert.
Mauritanian troops backed by French intelligence and special forces killed fighters from al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, AQIM, in an attack on a base in Mali on Thursday, an escalation in African and European responses to the region’s Islamists.
“We have no proof of life or death of Michel Germaneau,” a French Defense Ministry source said. “There was hope that (he) was in this camp, (but) when we arrived he wasn’t there. We still don’t know where he is.”
Hamdi Ould Mahjoub, Mauritania’s communications minister, said his country’s troops were still “mopping up” along the border between Mali and Mauritania after four days of raids.
He played down the role of the French in the fighting and said another al Qaeda member had died from his wounds, bringing the death toll among the fighters to seven.
A Mauritanian security source said the raids had continued some 200 km (125 miles) into Mali after Thursday’s pre-dawn attack on a group of Islamists who are believed to be holding the 78-year-old French hostage in Niger’s desert Sahel region.
The French Defense Ministry source said the operation was launched after AQIM failed to provide proof that Germaneau was alive or engage in negotiations over him.
The operation follows calls for better international cooperation against AQIM, which was previously focused on Algeria but now has two factions that are increasingly active in remote desert regions of Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
AQIM released a picture and audio of Germaneau in May in which he said he had a serious medical condition.
Retired engineer Germaneau was kidnapped in April and believed to be in the hands of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, leader of the more hardline of two AQIM factions operating in the Sahara.
AQIM had set France a deadline of next week to agree to a prisoner swap, saying it would otherwise kill him.
Paris has said it gave technical and logistical support to Mauritanian forces in an operation aimed at preventing an attack by AQIM on Mauritania. The French Defense Ministry source said between 20-30 French operatives had taken part.
Late on Friday, Mauritanian state television broadcast images of dead AQIM fighters, two of the group’s captured four-wheel drive vehicles and their destroyed desert camp.
Mauritania said it had gathered significant amounts of explosives, ammunition and intelligence from the raid, but four fighters, one of whom was wounded, escaped.
The operation appeared to anger Mali, which was not involved, and Spain, which also has hostages held by another al Qaeda faction in the region. The French source said both countries had been informed of the operation.
Mauritania’s defense minister traveled to Mali on Friday, but no news has emerged from the visit. Spain has said that its citizens, two aid workers captured in Mauritania last year, are being held by a different group than the one attacked this week.
Le Monde newspaper said on Saturday AQIM’s demands from France -- which include the freeing of Rachid Ramda, jailed for his involvement in three Paris bombings -- meant that any exchange was unlikely in any case.
Islamists in the Sahara have so far not staged any large-scale attacks, and analysts say they have concentrated largely on collecting revenues from ransom payments and the smuggling of goods, including cocaine.
But, fearing these groups could become too powerful in vast desert zones governments have little sway over, Western nations led by France and the United States have stepped up involvement in the region and are seeking to forge better coordination.
AQIM killed British captive Edwin Dyer last year after Britain refused to give in to its demands.
“Mounting an operation like this to rescue the hostage is so dangerous for him,” said Pierre Camatte, an ex-AQIM hostage, who was released in February. “There will be repercussions and it will up the stakes. I am very, very worried.”
France upgraded its travel warnings for Chad, Mauritania, Niger and Mali on Saturday, advising citizens across the entire Sahel zone to limit their movements to those strictly necessary and to be extremely cautious.
Writing by John Irish and David Lewis; Editing by Peter Graff