France says it has received no direct demands from the captors of a Frenchman in Niger despite a warning from al Qaeda’s North African wing that it would kill him unless Paris met its claims.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday he had a “burning worry” for the fate of 78-year old Michel Germaneau, who has been held since April 22, when he was seized in northern Niger near the desert border with Mali and Algeria.
The U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group said that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had given France 15 days from July 12 to arrange a prisoner exchange and said Sarkozy would be responsible for Germaneau’s life.
“We have seen the ultimatum on a website a few days ago,” said French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. “This ultimatum is sufficiently alarming to be taken very seriously, (but) to date (we) have received no claim from the kidnappers.”
Neither Sarkozy nor the ministry said what they would do to secure Germaneau’s release. The retired engineer had worked in the Algerian oil sector.
“Both in Paris and on the ground, we are mobilising, but you have to understand that in the context of the work we are doing, there has to be a degree of discretion to guarantee its success,” Valero said without elaborating.
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.
France has previously launched military operations to save hostages. Last year, navy commandos intervened to rescue tourists kidnapped off the coast of Somalia.
A military source in neighbouring Mali said the country would help with any such effort but warned of the difficulty of a mission in a desert region infested with bandits, smugglers, former rebels and groups linked to al Qaeda.
“France doesn’t know the terrain .. and also to intervene you have to know where they are. No one knows that, these people move around a lot,” said the source.
“But we have signed agreements, if the solution has to be military we will cooperate with whomever,” the source said of standing inter-government accords to combat terrorism.
This month Mali invited Algerian forces to pursue into its territory al Qaeda insurgents sought for the killing of 11 Algerian paramilitary police. It is not clear whether Algeria has taken up the offer.
Pic: French President Nickolas Sarkozy