The French government was scrambling yesterday to verify a claim by al-Qaeda’s north African branch that it has executed a French hostage in Mali as a “spy.”
A man claiming to be a spokesman for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) told Mauritania’s ANI news agency late on Tuesday that Philippe Verdon had been executed on March 10 “in response to France’s intervention in northern Mali.”
“The French President [Francois] Hollande is responsible for the lives of the other French hostages,” the spokesman warned.
A French Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said Paris was trying to verify the report, adding that “we don’t know at the moment” whether it was reliable.
In all, 15 French nationals, including Verdon, are being held in Africa, with AQIM claiming responsibility for six of the kidnappings.
Verdon was seized on the night of November 24, 2011, along with Serge Lazarevic from their hotel in Hombori, northeastern Mali, while they were on a business trip.
The families denied that the two were mercenaries or secret agents.
Pascal Lupart, president of a support committee for the two men, said the ministry had informed the families early yesterday about the AQIM statement.
“They told the family to treat it with caution. Nothing is confirmed,” Lupart told reporters.
AQIM claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and in August last year, a video showing Verdon describing the “difficult living conditions” was released on a Mauritanian Web site.
Al-Qaeda groups often use the private ANI to make statements, which often turn out to be accurate.
The French hostages’ families have in recent weeks expressed growing fears for their loved ones in the light of France’s military offensive aimed at routing Islamists from northern Mali.
Verdon’s father, Jean-Pierre Verdon, had complained on Tuesday that the families were hearing nothing from the French authorities about the hostages.
“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 said the families had no say in such “decisions of state.”
Paris deployed forces in Mali on Jan. 11 to help stop Islamist fighters who had controlled the north of the country since April last year 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 rebels from the area.
The AQIM source cited by ANI refused to confirm reports that top Islamist rebels Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid had been killed earlier this month.
France has been carrying out DNA tests to determine whether the militant leaders are among those killed in recent fighting in Mali.