PARIS (AP) — President Francois Hollande's office formally confirmed on Monday the death of a French hostage in Mali, ending the uncertainty about the status of one of six French citizens captured by al-Qaida's North African arm.
A statement from the president's office said an autopsy would be performed to learn the cause of death of Philippe Verdon once the body is transferred to France. Tests were conducted on the body to verify the identity.
The media arm of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, had said on Twitter in April that Verdon was dead after an unofficial announcement in March. Verdon, in his early 50s, had been captured in Hombori, in northeastern Mali, in November 2011 along with another French citizen. Both were reportedly on a business trip.
The al-Qaida-linked group, which said they were abducted from their hotel room, alleged they were French spies. AQIM is still believed to be holding five French hostages.
AQIM was one of three Islamic extremist groups who controlled northern Mali until a January French-led military intervention cut their stranglehold, killing extremists and scattering others to neighboring countries.
Verdon was known to be in ill health and there has been speculation that his death was related to pre-existing conditions. However, AQIM took credit for his death, saying in April that the fate of the remaining captives "is in the hands of French President Francois Hollande and the door is still open to find a just solution."
The presidential statement reiterated that "those responsible for the death of our countryman must be identified and judged."
The al-Qaida offshoot had thrived in the past from its hostage-taking business, which produced lucrative ransoms. France has always maintained that it did not pay ransoms to free hostages, though it has been widely surmised that payments were made indirectly. However, Hollande, who ordered the intervention to rid Mali, a former French colony, of extremists, said a policy of no ransoms must be scrupulously respected.
The presidential statement said the government was still actively seeking freedom for the remaining French captives. Another French citizen is being held captive in Nigeria by another group.
"No path will be ignored or left unchecked," the statement said.
Trying to negotiate the release of hostages could be a more complicated task than in the past because the Mali-based extremists are more scattered as a result of the French-led intervention.
Al-Qaida's North African branch said last month that eight European hostages it is holding are alive, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, quoting the militants on Twitter. The hostages are from Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and France, it said.
A French family of seven, including four young children, was freed in April in northern Cameroon after two months in captivity. Other French hostages in the Sahel region have been executed, including 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, killed in 2010.
Hostages' families have expressed deep concern about the effects of the military intervention on the hostages, fearing their loved ones could be the object of revenge or simply be neglected in the war environment.
Pascal Lupart, who heads the Support Committee for Philippe Verdon, suggested on BFM-TV that there was, at last, some relief.
"Now we will have a real funeral with a real body," he said.