Freeing Sahel hostages by force is too risky: experts
A commando raid to free Al Qaeda's hostages in north Africa is low on the agenda in Paris, because it means great risk to the lives of the captives, experts told AFP, but they spoke of covert preparations for a last-ditch strike.
Kidnapped on September 16 in Niger, the seven prisoners -- five French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan -- are being held by Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in a mountain stronghold in north Mali, according to a Malian source confirmed by French officials.
In this rugged and hostile region between Mali and Algeria, the kidnappers, under the orders of Algerian jihadist leader Abou Zeid, have long benefited from complicity with the nomad population, said French explorer Regis Belleville, who has criss-crossed the region by camel.
"Given its contacts with the tribes, AQIM knows everything that is going on in the area. It would be very difficult to surprise them," he said. "All the more so since there are smugglers' routes everywhere.
"With their (powerful) all-terrain vehicles, they are mobile, fast; they can move at the slightest suspicion, going into such isolated regions that they would be a logistical nightmare for anyone. And I'm sure orders have been given in the event of an attack to kill the French people."
AQIM members will be especially wary, according to Frederic Gallois, who led the French paramilitary police's special intervention group from 2002-2007, since French special forces on July 22 carried out a raid on AQIM bases in Mali, in the vain hope of rescuing hostage Michel Germaneau. Germaneau was subsequently executed by his captors.
"They fear an armed operation, knowing that we're capable of doing something," Gallois said. "They have undoubtedly taken precautions."
A Malian source involved in the negotiations on Sunday assured AFP that the hostages were "all alive" and able to stand up, but Gallois said there would be no need for AQIM to put kilometres (miles) between each hostage to make a rescue operation almost impossible.
"It would be enough to separate them by a few hundred metres, with two distinct groups of kidnappers. That would mean mounting two distinct and coordinated operations. Well, imagine five..."
Even if they are monitored from the sky by spy-planes and satellites, if all their telecommunications might be intercepted and the intelligence services of the region are active, AQIM can still hide their tracks with relative ease.
"The best solution for Abou Zeid is to melt away into the nomad population, to disguise the hostages as camel-drivers, to cut all communications and operate only via messengers," Belleville considered.
"Nomads live in groups of five or six people with their beasts spread out all over the north of Mali. It's impossible to check them all. If the AQIM boys move around, from family to family, they will become undetectable. In any case, they have to move a lot, because there will be so many rewards promised that they risk betrayal at any moment."
But in spite of the difficulties, it is certain that a rescue operation is being planned by the French special forces and men of the Action task force of the external intelligence service DGSE. Elite troops are already deployed in the region and other operations, much more secret and discreet, will be in preparation, experts said.
"The use of force should always be the last resort, because it is too dangerous" in such situations, Gallois explained. "But if everything suggests that no favourable outcome is possible, that negotiations are impossible (...) and that there is a direct and irreversible threat to the hostages, it becomes necessary to intervene, whatever the risk. I'm sure that the preparations have begun."
© 2010 AFP