French hostage, Philippe Verdon, has been beheaded by al-Qaeda’s wing in north Africa in retaliation for France’s intervention in Mali, Mauritania’s ANI news agency reported on Tuesday, citing a spokesman for the group.
Verdon, a French geologist captured in the northern Mali town of Hombori in November 2011, was beheaded by al-Qaeda on March 10, the group said.
An al-Qaeda commander reportedly called ANI, which has close links to Islamist militants, saying Verdon was killed “in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali,” ANI reported.
The death, if proved true, would be a worrying development for Paris, which still has some 14 hostages held in West Africa, including seven in the Sahel by AQIM and its affiliates.
French President Francois Hollande in part justified military action in Mali to prevent the north from being used as a launch pad for terror attacks in Africa and in the West.
One of AQIM’s leaders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had pledged revenge after France launched a campaign in January to dislodge the group and other Islamist militants who had hijacked a Tuareg rebellion in the Sahel nation and seized the northern half of the country.
After driving them from the main cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in a swift, nine-week assault, some 1,600 French and Chadian troops began searching for Islamist rebels in their pocket hideouts in the mountainous region of northern Mali.
The AQIM spokesman, who identified himself only as Qayrawani, described Verdon as a French spy, adding that Hollande “bore the responsibility for the remaining hostages.”
Earlier Tuesday, Verdon’s father Jean-Pierre Verdon complained that the families were hearing nothing from the French authorities.
“We are in a total fog and it is impossible to live this way,” he told RTL radio. “We have no information.”
Asked about France’s refusal to pay ransoms to kidnappers, Verdon senior replied that the families had no say in such “decisions of state”.
Paris deployed forces in Mali on January 11 to help stop Al-Qaeda linked fighters who had controlled the north of the country since April 2012 from moving southward and threatening the capital Bamako.
France now has more than 4,000 troops on the ground in Mali, of whom about 1,200 are currently deployed in the northeast, carrying out clean-up operations after driving out most of the Islamist rebels from the area.
There are still pockets of resistance in areas such as Gao, which have witnessed stray attacks and suicide bombings since the Islamists fled.
The French troops in the region are backed up by African forces. Soldiers from Chad, whose experience and training has made them key in the French-led offensive, have also suffered casualties with at least 26 deaths.