France plans military support after Africa hostage killing
France planned a crackdown on militants in North Africa on Tuesday, including stepping up military involvement in the region after a branch of Al-Qaeda killed a French aid worker, officials said.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to avenge the killing of Michel Germaneau, 78, who was kidnapped in April in Niger, and officials on Tuesday held meetings to discuss possible French action in the region.
The government has not yet detailed its response, but plans appeared to be taking shape after Axel Poniatowski, head of a parliamentary foreign affairs commission, met with Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
Poniatowski said after the meeting that France would offer "logistical assistance" to operations by national armies in Sahel countries.
"We can't talk of reprisals. We can't talk of vengeance. But it is clear that France will offer its support to actions that could be carried out by Mauritania, Mali or Niger," he said.
A source in the prime minister's office said that the French military would step up "cooperation in training the armies" of these countries but would not send extra troops itself.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said Sunday it had executed Germaneau in revenge after French and Mauritanian soldiers killed six of its militants in a failed bid to rescue him in Mali last week.
"France does not practice vengeance," Fillon said on Tuesday.
"However we do have agreements with the governments in the region and in particular with the Mauritanian government and with the Malian government to hunt these terrorists and bring them to justice."
Some French officials had suggested privately that the aid worker's captors may have already killed him weeks before the raid, and on Tuesday Fillon became the first to do so in public.
France had joined the raid by Mauritanian forces against AQIM on Malian soil "because we hoped that Michel Germaneau might be in the camp," Fillon said on Europe 1 radio.
"I think the hostage's life was condemned from the day we received this ultimatum on July 12," he added, however.
"It is because of the abnormal, strange nature of this ultimatum and the refusal to enter talks with French authorities that we might think Michel Germaneau was already dead at that time. But that is just a supposition."
Defence Minister Herve Morin said Monday that France joined the raid in order to support Mauritania in pre-empting a planned attack by Al-Qaeda fighters, but had also hoped to find the hostage.
Fillon vowed: "The fight against terrorism continues and it is going to strengthen, particularly against AQIM," the northern Africa-based affiliate of Osama Bin Laden's global Al-Qaeda network of Islamist militants.
Asked if France would carry out bombings, Poniatowski said: "I don't think so... (because) these are camps of about 20 men who are very mobile and change location every day or very regularly."
Experts and military officers told AFP to expect an increased use of spies and special forces to target militant groups in the Sahel.
Fillon also said France was on high alert against terrorist attacks.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner embarked on a tour of countries in the region on Monday to discuss security with leaders and diplomats there.
France is the former colonial ruler of most of the Sahel, a desert region along the south of the Sahara running through Mauritania, Mali, Niger and southern Algeria, and retains influence with regional leaders.
© 2010 AFP