French hostage fate unknown as soldiers race to find him
The fate of a French hostage abducted in Algeria by jihadists threatening to kill him remained uncertain Wednesday as hundreds of soldiers raced against time in a frantic bid to find him.
Some 1,500 Algerian forces combed through the restive, mountainous Tizi Ouzou region in eastern Algeria where 55-year-old Herve Gourdel was kidnapped Sunday by Jund al-Khilifa, a group linked to radical Islamic State (IS) militants.
In a video posted on YouTube that showed the white-haired, bespectacled Gourdel surrounded by masked men holding Kalashnikov rifles, the group had threatened to kill their hostage by Tuesday night if Paris did not stop air strikes in Iraq, where IS controls large areas.
"Soldiers are combing through the area," an Algerian security source told AFP Wednesday, adding elite anti-terrorism forces were part of the search for the hostage in the rugged, wooded zone.
The hunt for Gourdel came a day after President Francois Hollande vowed not to give in to the jihadists' demands, on the sidelines of an official trip to New York.
"As grave as this situation is, we will not give in to any blackmail, any pressure, any ultimatum, no matter how odious, how despicable," he said.
"What is at stake here is our liberty, our security and sovereignty. No terrorist group can influence the will, position or freedom of France," he added.
- Off the beaten-track -
Gourdel, who lives in the southern French city of Nice, only arrived in Algeria on Saturday and was seized the following day while hiking in the heart of the Djurdjura National Park, whose dense forests, deep gorges and picturesque lakes were once a major draw for tourists.
However, the mountains became a sanctuary for Islamists in the 1990s who later swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and security forces have been unable to dislodge them.
A passionate photographer and mountaineer, Gourdel liked going off the beaten track, though he was always careful, his friends said.
"I often bump into him in the mountains and he always goes to little-known areas of the massif, never on the major routes where there are people," said Michel Ingigliardi, his friend of 30 years in Saint-Martin-Vesubie, a village nestled deep in the French Alps outside Nice.
"Going to far-away isolated countries is consistent with his personality."
Local mayor Henri Giuge said someone had told Gourdel about Algeria in June, whetting his appetite for the stunning mountains of Tizi Ouzou.
The group that abducted him was formed recently after splintering from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which experts say has raked in some $120 million (93 million euros) in ransom payments in the previous eight years.
According to Algerian newspaper reports, the man behind the kidnapping is thought to be a former military adviser to AQIM boss Abdelmalek Droukdel who left the group and created Jund al-Khilifa in June.
The man, known as Khaled Abou Selmane, is thought to have been behind an attack in April that left 11 soldiers dead in Iboudrarene, in the same area where Gourdel was abducted.
Hollande insisted Tuesday the country would press on with air strikes alongside the United States, although ground forces are out of the question.
The president said he had talked to the partner and family of the mountain guide and praised their "dignity and courage".
"In this ordeal I assured them that they have the complete support of France," he said.
- PM to defend Iraq strikes -
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was due to defend France's military engagement in Iraq in parliament, where security had been tightened following an IS threat earlier this week.
In a chilling video, the radical Islamist group urged Muslims to kill Westerners whose nations have joined a campaign to battle the jihadist group, in particular Americans and French.
The United States has built a coalition of more than 50 nations to fight the IS organisation, after the jihadists seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and committed widespread atrocities, including beheadings and crucifixions.
On Friday, France conducted its first air strikes in Iraq. While the US launched strikes against the Islamic State jihadists in Syria, France has said it would limit its strikes to Iraq.
Gourdel's family expressed hope for his freedom and spoke of their anguish.
"We learned with great pain of the kidnapping of Herve Gourdel, our father, our partner, our son, our brother and our very dear friend," said a family statement sent to AFP Tuesday.
"Herve, we can't wait to see you again and we are waiting for you," the statement added.
© 2014 AFP