Raid finds no trace of French hostage in Mali: ministry

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A military operation has found no trace of a French hostage being held by an Al-Qaeda-linked gang in Mali, a French defence ministry source said Saturday, ahead of a Monday deadline.

Twenty to thirty French soldiers were involved in the raid by Mauritanian forces on Thursday, said the source in Paris, adding that no other operations were underway to free hostage Michel Germaneau, 78.

Germaneau does not appear to have been present when Thursday's pre-dawn assault was launched, and Mauritania has said that the operation was not intended as a rescue. Six members of the Al-Qaeda affiliated group were killed.

Earlier, a foreign military source told AFP in the Malian capital Bamako that the French military took further action Saturday to free Germaneau.

The French defence ministry source speaking in Paris, however, said that France had only been involved in Thursday's raid and that a second raid Saturday was being conducted by the Maurtanians alone.

"The French are doing everything to free Germaneau," the source in Bamako said, adding that an "operation is underway" on Mali territory.

Thursday's deadly raid in the Sahara desert, carried out by French-backed Mauritanian forces on a suspected Al-Qaeda base, had just been "a smoke screen", the source said.

"Somewhere else in the vast desert, another (operation) is underway," the source said, adding that forces from other countries in the region were also taking part.

A military source in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott confirmed the new operation Saturday. Mauritanian troops were continuing their operation inside Malian territory against members of an Al-Qaeda affiliated group.

"Combing and tracking operations are continuing against the Al-Qaeda terrorist camps and we have been able to seize a new arsenal of weapons, explosives and ammunition," said the source, adding that the army was operating in "several zones."

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an offshoot of Osama bin Laden's network, is believed to be holding the French aid worker in Mali and has been responsible for the murder of a British hostage.

Germaneau was kidnapped in April in Niger. Murdered British hostage Edwin Dyer, 60, was kidnapped by Islamic extremists in the Sahel region bordering the Sahara desert in January 2009.

Malian authorities blamed his murder 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.

AQIM members have threatened to kill the French hostage. On July 11, they gave France a 15-day deadline to help secure the release of its members in the region, warning that Germaneau would be executed if Paris failed to comply.

That would make the deadline Monday.

Germaneau was working with the Enmilal aid agency to improve health services and schools at the time of his kidnap.

France says it has received no direct demands from Germaneau's kidnappers but takes their reported threat to kill him seriously.

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.

© 2010 AFP

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