French national Gilberto Rodrigues Leal, who was held hostage in Mali since being kidnapped in November 2012, has died, the MUJAO Islamist group said Tuesday.
Yoro Abdul Salam, a spokesman for the group, gave no details on the date or circumstances of his death during a brief telephone exchange.
When asked for details, Salam said that "in the name of Allah, he is dead", before hanging up.
The announcement came two days after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he was "extremely worried" about the safety of Rodrigues Leal, 62.
"We haven't had any news for a long time. We are in contact with the family but we are extremely worried," Fabius said.
Rodrigues Leal was kidnapped on November 20, 2012, by armed men near the western town of Kayes as he was driving a camper van from Mauritania.
MUJAO is one of several Islamist groups that occupied the vast desert north of Mali in an alliance with Tuareg separatist rebels in 2012 in the wake of a military coup.
The Islamists later routed the Tuaregs and began an advance on the capital Bamako that prompted a military intervention by former colonial power France.
France launched Operation Serval in January 2013 to oust Islamist and rebel militants, who by then had seized control of around half of Mali’s territory.
President François Hollande recently told French soldiers the objectives of the mission had been largely completed, announcing a major scale-down of troops in Mali this year.
France is currently winding down its force from a peak of around 5,000 soldiers but will keep 1,000 troops in Mali beyond the spring.
UN peacekeepers took over responsibility for Mali's security in July last year from a pan-African military mission that had been supporting the French troops.
The announcement of Rodrigues Leal's death comes against the backdrop of tension across the north, where MUJAO and other Islamist militias are regrouping, according to security sources.
Some militants have gone into hiding and continue staging sporadic attacks, including the abduction in February of five local aid workers, four of whom were with the International Committee of the Red Cross. French soldiers liberated the aid workers from MUJAO militants in an area north of Timbuktu earlier this month.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in March that French soldiers had killed about 40 Islamist fighters in Mali, including some senior commanders, in operations that spanned a number of weeks.
They included Omar Ould Hamaha, a commander of MUJAO and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), known by the nom de guerre of "Red Beard".
Hamaha was implicated in the April 2012 abduction of Algerian diplomats in Gao, Mali's largest northern city, which was also claimed by MUJAO.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-04-22