France said on Saturday it had no information as to the fate of Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old engineer held hostage by al-Qaeda's North African wing, as French-backed Mauritanian forces wrapped up four days of operations against the Islamist group.
AFP - A military raid failed to find any trace of a French hostage at a camp in Mali where it was believed he was being held by an Al-Qaeda-linked gang threatening to kill him, a French source said Saturday.
Between 20 and 30 French soldiers were involved in the raid on a remote camp by Mauritanian forces on Thursday, said the defence ministry source in Paris, adding that the operation had been an attempt to rescue Michel Germaneau.
Mauritania, which borders Mali, had earlier denied that it was a rescue bid for the 78-year-old French aid worker.
Map showing AQIM's desert sanctuary
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on July 11 gave France a 15-day deadline to help secure the release of its members in the region, warning that Germaneau would be executed if Paris failed to comply.
The deadline is due to expire on Monday.
Six members of AQIM, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden's network, were killed in the operation, officials have said.
Documents, bomb-making equipment, guns and ammunition were found during Thursday's pre-dawn assault but soldiers found no evidence that Germaneau had been held there, the French source said.
Further details of efforts to free Germaneau -- who was kidnapped in April in Niger -- remained unclear.
Earlier Saturday, a foreign military source told AFP in the Malian capital Bamako that the French military took further action Saturday to free Germaneau.
The French defence ministry source, however, said that French troops had only been involved in Thursday's raid and that a second raid Saturday, which had since finished, was conducted by the Maurtanians alone.
"The French are doing everything to free Germaneau," the Mali source said, adding that an "operation is underway" on Mali territory.
Thursday's deadly raid in the Sahara desert, carried out by French-backed Mauritanian forces on the suspected Al-Qaeda base, had just been "a smoke screen", the Mali source added.
"Somewhere else in the vast desert, another (operation) is underway," the source said, adding that forces from other countries in the region were also taking part.
A military source in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott confirmed the new operation Saturday inside Malian territory.
"Combing and tracking operations are continuing against the Al-Qaeda terrorist camps and we have been able to seize a new arsenal of weapons, explosives and ammunition," said the source, adding that the army was operating in "several zones."
AQIM has also been held responsible for the murder of British hostage Edwin Dyer, 60, who was kidnapped by Islamic extremists in the Sahel region bordering the Sahara desert in January 2009.
Malian authorities blamed his murder on AQIM cell leader Abou Zeid, also known as Abib Hammadou, a 43-year-old Algerian who is listed on United Nations documents as a known Al-Qaeda member.
Germaneau, the French hostage, was working with the Enmilal aid agency to improve health services and schools at the time of his kidnap.
France says it has received no direct demands from Germaneau's kidnappers but takes their reported threat to kill him seriously.
AQIM is also holding two Spaniards in the region after kidnapping them more than seven months ago: Albert Vilalta, 35, and 50-year-old Roque Pascual.
France had "consulted" Spain over Thursday's operation, added the Defence Ministry source in Paris. The raid prompted "anxiety" in Madrid over how it might impact on the Spanish hostages, according to Spanish media reports.
Date created : 2010-07-24