PARIS (Reuters) - France is at war with al Qaeda’s North African branch and will intensify military support for governments in the region combating the Islamist fighters, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday.
He was speaking in a radio interview a day after President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed that a 78-year-old French hostage kidnapped in Niger and held by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had been killed following a failed French rescue mission.
“We are at war with al Qaeda and that’s why we have been supporting Mauritanian forces fighting al Qaeda for months,” Fillon told Europe 1 radio, saying that AQIM consisted of about 400 fighters operating in a desert area the size of Europe.
Asked what Sarkozy meant when he said the killing of retired engineer Michel Germaneau would not go unpunished, the prime minister said: “It means the fight against terrorism will continue and will be reinforced.”
He declined to give details for security reasons. However, he stressed the government’s policy remained to negotiate with hostage-takers whenever possible to save French lives.
Asked whether Paris would retaliate militarily, he said: “France does not practise revenge.”
Sarkozy has said he decided to launch a raid into Mali with Mauritanian forces last Thursday only after failing to establish any negotiating channel with the kidnappers and because he feared for the hostage’s life after an al Qaeda ultimatum.
The opposition Socialists said they would not criticise the government’s action in the hostage affair.
Malian officials said they were not consulted on the raid, which went beyond the hot pursuit covered by regional accords.
Fillon said France was on maximum security alert and several attempted attacks were thwarted on French soil and in neighbouring countries each year.
However, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he saw no increased threat to France following Germaneau’s death.
“I don’t think we have the slightest bit of evidence of an increased danger,” Kouchner told RTL radio in an interview.
The minister said he had not urged French nationals to leave the Sahel but had asked them to step up safety measures.
The foreign ministry later confirmed there were some 9,000 French expatriates living in Niger, Mauritania and Mali.
French nuclear group Areva, which operates two uranium mines in northern Niger and employs 2,500 people including around 50 French nationals, said it was increasing its security in the region.
Four Areva employees were kidnapped and held for several days in Niger in June 2008, before being released unharmed.
Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure said late Monday his country was committed to fighting terrorism in the Sahel but reiterated a plea for “thorough regional cooperation.”
Other officials were more blunt in their complaints at France’s sidelining of Mali, seen as a weak link in fighting AQIM for its failure to crack down on groups based in the north and reported links between some authorities and Islamists.
“We do not understand why, in the case of Germaneau, France leaves us to one side and launches a military operation with Mauritania, which ended up being a failure,” a senior official in Mali’s defence ministry told Reuters.
Kouchner said he had been told that Germaneau was killed a long way from the area where the Franco-Mauritanian raid took place, but it was not clear when.
“Was he dead before this operation? Did he die afterwards? I don’t know,” he said.
Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, Vicky Buffery, John Irish and Jean-Michel Belot in Paris; editing by Andrew Roche