PARIS?President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Monday to avenge the murder of a 78-year-old French aid worker who was kidnapped and killed in the Sahara desert by Al-Qaeda's North African wing.
Sarkozy spoke after Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) declared it had killed Michel Germaneau as revenge after French and Mauritanian soldiers stormed one of the group's camps in Mali and killed six militants.
"Dear compatriots, this crime committed against Michel Germaneau will not go unpunished," Sarkozy said, warning French nationals to avoid the arid Sahel region running through Mauritania, Mali, Niger and southern Algeria.
Sarkozy did not reveal what France plans to do in response to the killing, but experts and military officers told AFP to expect an increased use of spies and special forces to target militant groups in the Sahel.
Defence Minister Herve Morin cut short an Asian tour to fly back to France and help prepare the military response, aides said.
France already has military cooperation agreements with its former West African colonies, and helps to train and coordinate local anti-terror forces, in an area which receives around 30,000 French tourists per year.
In Mali, a local elected official told AFP that Germaneau had been beheaded after the raid, in the presence of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, the leader of an AQIM cell that has been blamed for killing a Briton in 2009.
"He was still alive when the raid took place, but hidden in a mountainous region in Kidal, near the Algerian border," the local official said.
"The area is an impregnable fortress, where Islamists have planted mines and constructed bomb shelters," he warned.
Sarkozy did not say how he could be sure Germaneau was dead, but a defense ministry official said the French government had confirmed that the claim of responsibility was an authentic message from the group.
"We're faced with a totally determined group, a phalanx waging a holy war that refused to negotiate with us by direct or indirect means," Morin said.
"The Mauritanians were informed about an imminent attack by 150 Al-Qaeda fighters based in Mali," he told France Inter radio. "We decided to help out in part of their operation, which was to intervene in one Al-Qaeda camp."
Morin said Al-Qaeda has around 500 militants in armed groups scattered around the Sahel. Mauritanian and French forces killed at least six AQIM fighters on Thursday, but failed to find any trace of Germaneau.
He was speaking after an emergency meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris between Sarkozy, Fillon, key ministers, military top brass and the heads of France's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.
Madrid, which has two Spanish nationals held in Mali by a different AQIM cell, condemned the killing, expressing "solidarity and support to the French government in the face of this brutal crime."
Spain said it would continue its efforts to negotiate the freedom of aid workers Albert Vilalta, 35, and 50-year-old Roque Pascual, kidnapped eight months ago.
Privately, Spanish officials expressed concern at the more robust French tactics, fearing that military action might endanger the Spanish captives.
"The facts speak for themselves," said one senior Spanish official, noting that the French hostage is dead and the Spaniards reportedly doing well.
AQIM took responsibility for the killing in an audio message broadcast by the Arab satellite TV network Al-Jazeera at the weekend.
"We executed the French hostage Michel Germaneau on Saturday July 24, 2010, to avenge the killing of our six brothers in the cowardly French raid," AQIM chief Abu Musab Abdul Wadud said.
"Sarkozy failed to free his compatriot in this operation but he has without any doubt opened for his people and for his country one of the gates of hell."
Some French officials have questioned details of the claim, indicating privately that the hostage might have been killed several weeks ago.
Germaneau was seized on April 19 in Niger where he had been building a school. On May 14 his abductors issued a photo of an exhausted-looking hostage and a taped message in which he appealed to Sarkozy to work for his release.