Sarkozy in crisis talks after Al-Qaeda claims hostage murder
President Nicolas Sarkozy met his top national security advisers Monday to decide on France's response after Al-Qaeda's North African arm boasted of murdering a French hostage.
Sarkozy summoned key cabinet ministers and top defence and intelligence chiefs to the Elysee Palace, after Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said it killed the 78-year-old hostage to avenge a deadly but failed rescue.
He was due to make a statement at 0830 GMT.
French officials have expressed doubt about details of the claim, with some suggesting that Michel Germaneau may have already been dead weeks before last Thursday's Franco-Mauritanian commando raid in the Malian desert.
But there is little doubt now that he is dead, and all eyes are on Paris to see how Sarkozy will respond to the provocations by the group, which sent an audio message to the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera,
"We announce that we executed the French hostage Michel Germaneau on Saturday July 24, 2010, to avenge the killing of our six brothers in the cowardly French raid," AQIM chief Abu Musab Abdul Wadud said.
"Sarkozy failed to free his compatriot in this operation but he has without any doubt opened for his people and for his country one of the gates of hell."
Sarkozy's emergency meeting began at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) and included Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
Defence Minister Herve Morin, who is abroad, was represented, along with the heads of France's DGSE foreign intelligence agency, Erard Corbin de Mangoux, and DCRI domestic security service, Bernard Squarcini.
The French presidency had earlier said it had received no confirmation of the killing of Germaneau, who was kidnapped in northern Niger on April 19.
But a senior French official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP Sunday that Paris was convinced he had "been dead for several weeks."
On May 14, his abductors issued a photo of an exhausted-looking Germaneau and a taped message in which he appealed to Sarkozy to work for his release.
He said he suffered from a serious heart illness and had no more medication and that he was struggling with the heat.
Germaneau's Algerian driver, who was also abducted, was later released. He said the Frenchman was being held in a desert zone in Mali.
On July 11, AQIM gave France a 15-day deadline to help secure the release of its members in the region, warning that Germaneau would be killed.
On Thursday last week, with the deadline just days away, between 20 and 30 French soldiers took part alongside Mauritanian forces in a raid on a remote militant camp in the Malian desert.
Six members of AQIM were killed in the operation, officials have said.
Documents, bomb-making equipment, guns and ammunition were found during the pre-dawn assault but soldiers found no sign of Germaneau.
Germaneau was working with Enmilal, a small French aid agency, to improve health services and schools in Niger.
AQIM is also holding two Spaniards in the region after kidnapping them more than seven months ago: Albert Vilalta, 35, and 50-year-old Roque Pascual.
The group has also been blamed for the murder of British hostage Edwin Dyer, 60, who was kidnapped by Islamic extremists in the Sahel region bordering the Sahara desert in January 2009.
Malian authorities blamed that killing on AQIM cell leader Abou Zeid, also known as Abib Hammadou, a 43-year-old Algerian who is listed on United Nations documents as a known Al-Qaeda member.
© 2010 AFP