ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algerian forces expanded their search on Thursday through the mountainous region where a newly-formed extremist group claiming allegiance to the Syria-based Islamic State group beheaded a French hiker the day before.
French President Francois Hollande, meanwhile, held a special defense meeting Thursday about Paris' role in fighting the Islamic State group, and said afterward, "This crime will not remain unpunished."
Algeria has also vowed to find those behind the murder and promised to protect foreign citizens on its soil.
Madjid Benhamiche, a 59-year-old communal guard from a village just a dozen kilometers where Herve Gourdel was kidnapped and a veteran of many such operations in the mountainous Kabylie region, said the rough terrain will hamper the search.
"Since this morning, soldiers, some with dogs, have begun searching the valley and moving toward the ridges in hopes of fighting the body," he said. "It will be difficult to find the body, the terrorists will have buried it and they are difficult to find because these people know the terrain well — this mountain is their territory and they know of caves that other people can't reach."
Gourdel was seized Sunday while hiking in the Djura Djura mountains of northern Algeria, a beautiful region of soaring peaks where Algerian guerrillas once fought for independence against French colonists and later became a hideout for Islamic militants.
He came to Algeria at the invitation of friends and had gone hiking with five Algerian companions, four of whom were from this region, said Hafidh Azouzi, who works at the local Tikdjda Hotel.
He said they were all members of the national mountaineering federation and have been in police custody since Tuesday.
"One is just 17 years old and his family is very worried," said Azouzi, adding that the day after the news of the kidnapping, all the guests had left the hotel. "We saw this morning soldiers, weapons at ready, marching single file along the road before heading uphill, but the operation is running into difficulty as the clouds roll in and the rain has started."
Gourdel's family released a statement Thursday remembering his "love for the mountains," thanking the French for their support, and saying they don't want politicians to use his death as a pulpit or pretext for anything.
"We are all ordinary citizens united in pain, concerned with paying homage to Herve, and above all respectful of the values of tolerance that he embodied so generously."
There are fears that other radical Islamist groups may carry out copycat attacks on Westerners following calls by the Islamic State group on Sunday.
The kidnapping and murder of Gourdel, however, is believed to be a crime of opportunity, since Algeria's extremists have been confined to remote mountainous regions and the French mountaineer was one of the few foreigners to venture into the area.
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton contributed to this report from Paris.