DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — A French hostage was executed by al-Qaida's North African branch in retaliation for France's military intervention in northern Mali, according to an announcement in a Mauritanian-based website, which is frequently used by the Islamic extremist group.
The information could not immediately be verified, but in Paris, a French Foreign Ministry official said that the government is aware of the report and is investigating. Family members, including the father of the hostage, said they had not received confirmation of the death.
The Nouakchott Information Agency announced the death of Philippe Verdon in an article published late Tuesday, quoting a purported spokesman for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. The spokesman, identified by the name "Ghairawani," said that AQIM killed Verdon on March 10 in revenge for France's two-month-old offensive in northern Mali, which has succeeded in pushing the al-Qaida fighters out of the three main cities in the north. Ghairawani also warned that the other French hostages being held in the Sahel by the terror group and their allies could face the same fate.
"The President of France is solely responsible for the lives of the other hostages," he said.
Verdon was kidnapped with another Frenchman, Serge Lazarevic, from their hotel in Hombori in northeastern Mali in November 2011. Their families have said they were in the region doing a feasibility study for a future cement factory. A total of six French hostages are currently being held by the al-Qaida chapter, and a seventh is being held by MUJAO, a splinter group also allied with al-Qaida. Eight more, including a family with small children, were grabbed in Nigeria and Cameroon by local terror cells that are believed to have ties to the al-Qaida fighters in Mali, bringing to 15 the total number of French citizens currently being held in the region.
Separately on Wednesday, the French Defense Ministry detailed the latest military developments in the Mali campaign, saying about 460 French troops on Sunday wrapped up a five-day operation against suspected jihadist fighters near the town of Gao. During the sweep, the troops faced "harassment" including traps and weapons fire on several occasions as they advanced — and responded by firing from cannon and helicopter gunships that left about 15 "terrorists" dead, the ministry said in a statement. Eight rebel pickup trucks were also destroyed, it said.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has long warned that it would kill the French hostages it was holding if France launched the offensive. The families of the hostages have held demonstrations in France to ask for a halt to the hostilities, fearing that the campaign will put their loved ones at risk.
Jean-Pierre Verdon, the hostage's father, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the claim reported by the Mauritanian website "is not a confirmation" of his son's death, and said the family is awaiting French government comment. He said he did not want to comment further as long as there are other hostages held in the region.
Pascal Lupart, who maintains a support group for some of the French hostages believed held in Mali, said Tuesday that the families feared the hostages had been handed off to "second-tier" extremists after the French campaign intensified, and expressed "great concern" about a lack of information on their whereabouts.
Jean-Paul Rouiller, the director of the Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, urged caution, saying the AQIM spokesman cited by the website is not one of the people usually quoted.
"Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has a structure that is very well, and very strictly, organized. People have specific functions. At the global level, the spokesman is Abu Mohamed. He is that one that usually endorses all the communiques, all the videos. He is the one that makes the liaison between the organization and the media," Rouiller explained.
There is also a spokesman for the Saharan branch of AQIM, named Abdallah al-Chinguetti. The article published by the Nouakchott Information Agency does not cite either of them. Instead, the spokesman is identified as Ghairawani, likely a reference to platoon leader, al-Kayrawani al-Kidali, a platoon leader under the command of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb commander, Abou Zeid. This is problematic on a number of levels says, Rouiller.
"There are several problems. Point A is that he is not the usual spokesman. Point B is that, according to our information, he might have been killed around 10 days ago in Aguelhok," a town in northern Mali that has been the scene of recent fighting. "And finally according to our sources, the guy who was in charge of (holding hostages) Verdon and Lazarevic was al-Targui," said Rouiller, naming a different platoon leader.
Typically hostages are fiercely guarded by the platoon leader that kidnapped them, making it improbable that a different commander would announce their execution. For these reasons, Rouiller says that he is not convinced that Verdon was executed, though he also cautions that the ongoing war in Mali could have upset the normal structure of the organization, making it acceptable for a different spokesman or a different commander to announce the news.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb grew out of an insurgency in Algeria. The group joined the al-Qaida terror network in 2006. Hunted by the Algerian security services, the leaders of AQIM crossed the desert border into Mali and began operating out of the country's lawless, northern desert. Last March following a coup in Mali's capital, the al-Qaida group pushed into the cities, taking over the three provincial capitals of the north, including the fabled city of Timbuktu. The group has financed itself by kidnapping Europeans.
For years, French citizens have been lucrative kidnapping targets because of the government's unofficial policy of paying ransoms through middlemen, analysts and U.S. officials have said. The newspaper Le Monde this week reported that President Francois Hollande is putting an end to the payments, citing advisers to the French leader.
Rouiller said that a final explanation for the announcement of Verdon's execution is in response to Hollande's ultimatum. "The hypothesis would be that Verdon was actually already dead. We know that his health was really bad, from pre-existing conditions. This claim could be a response to Hollande's announcement that they will not pay ransoms anymore. They want to put pressure on France and say, 'OK, here is what will happen if you don't pay ransoms.'"
Charlton contributed to this report from Paris. Associated Press writer Ahmed Mohamed in Nouackhott, Mauritania, and Jamey Keaten in Paris also contributed to this report.
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi