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France aids terror raid in Mauritania, bids to free hostage

The French Defense Ministry confirmed on Friday that it provided logistical and technical support to a Mauritanian military operation to rescue a French citizen held captive by militants linked to Al Qaeda.


AP - The French military helped Mauritanian forces thwart an attack by suspected al-Qaida members in northwest Africa in an operation that left six extremists dead, officials said Friday.

Four others allegedly from al-Qaida’s North African offshoot escaped during the raid, including one who was wounded, according to Mauritanian’s interior minister, Mohamed Ould Boilil. The group had been planning to attack a Mauritanian military base next week, he said.

Questions swirled around the mysterious operation against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which is active in the Sahara Desert and the arid Sahel region. The French Defense Ministry would not say when or where the raid took place.

The Spanish newspaper El Pais and other media said the raid early Thursday was an attempt to free a 78-year-old French hostage. But El Pais said the troops did not find Michel Germaneau, an engineer who worked for Algeria’s oil industry who was abducted April 22.

AQIM has threatened to execute Germaneau next week if its demands on releasing prisoners are not met. The group has claimed several kidnappings of tourists in recent years, including British hostage Edwin Dyer, who was killed last year when Britain refused to pay a ransom.

The French Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry declined to answer questions about whether the operation was intended to free Germaneau. A statement from the Defense Ministry simply noted that AQIM has refused to prove that he is alive or discuss freeing him. The Foreign Ministry said it was worried about him.

A terse Defense Ministry statement said the operation “neutralized the group of terrorists and prevented a planned attack against Mauritanian objectives,” and said France had provided “technical and logistics support” to Mauritania.

Map showing AQIM's desert sanctuary
Map showing AQIM's desert sanctuary

It was not immediately clear where the raid took place _ AQIM has long taken advantage of the porous borders in the Sahara.

The Mauritanian minister said only that it happened outside his country but “not far from our borders,” suggesting the location was Mali. He said soldiers also seized explosive devices, weapons and telecommunications materials in the operation.
AQIM is also holding two Spanish aid workers, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta, who were taken hostage in Mauritania in November.

A Spanish foreign ministry spokeswoman said Spain would continue seeking the Spaniards’ release and declined to comment on news reports that Spain was worried the military operation might affect efforts to free them. She spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with ministry policy.

Amid increasing concerts about terrorism and trafficking in northwest Africa, four countries _ Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger _ in April opened a joint military headquarters deep in the desert. The goal has been to establish a collective response to threats from traffickers and AQIM.

The United States is also trying to help and has provided U.S.-run training sessions for African troops in the area.

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