French hostage may have died before raid: PM

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A French hostage killed by Al-Qaeda's North African wing may have died nearly two weeks before a failed bid by French forces to rescue him, France's prime minister said on Tuesday.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said Sunday it had killed Michel Germaneau, 78, in revenge after French and Mauritanian soldiers killed six of its militants in a raid on one of their camps in Mali last week.

Some French officials suggested privately then that the aid worker's captors may had already killed him weeks before the raid, and on Tuesday Prime Minister Francois 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.

"France does not practice vengeance," Fillon said.

"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."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed on Monday that Germaneau's killing "will not go unpunished." He said the government had authenticated the group's claim to have killed Germaneau although his body has not been recovered.

Sarkozy and Fillon did not say what France planned to do in response, but experts and military officers told AFP to expect an increased use of spies and special forces to target militant groups in the Sahel.

In Mali, a local elected official told AFP that Germaneau had been beheaded after the raid, in the presence of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, the leader of an AQIM cell that has been blamed for killing a Briton, Edwin Dyer, in 2009.

Fillon said Germaneau's body had not been recovered and pointed out that Dyer's had never been found either.

He 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 band of scrub and desert along the south of the Sahara running through Mauritania, Mali, Niger and southern Algeria, and retains influence with regional leaders.

© 2010 AFP

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