France has declared war on al Qaeda, and matched its fighting words with a first attack on a base camp of the terror network’s North African branch, after terrorists killed a French aid worker taken hostage in April.
The declaration and attack marked a shift in strategy for France, usually discreet about its behind-the-scenes battle against terrorism.
“We are at war with al Qaeda,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said yesterday, a day after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the death of 78-year-old hostage Michel Germaneau.
The aid worker was abducted on April 20 or 22 in Niger in the Islamic Maghreb and later taken to Mali, officials said.
The killers would “not go unpunished”, Sarkozy said in unusually strong language, given France’s habit of employing quiet co-operation with its allies – Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria – in the region in which the al Qaeda franchise was spawned amid an Islamist insurgency.
The Salafist Group for Call and Combat formally merged with al Qaeda in 2006 and spread through the Sahel region – parts of Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
Officials suggest France will activate accords with these countries to stop the terrorists in their tracks. The United States said it would help the French “in any way that we can” to bring those who killed Germaneau to justice, according to US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Fillon refused to say how France would act. “But we will,” he said told Europe 1 radio.
And perhaps it already has. On Friday, the French-backed Mauritanian forces attacked an al Qaeda camp on the border with Mali, killing at least six suspected terrorists. It is the first time France is known to have attacked an al Qaeda base.
France said it was a last-ditch effort to save its citizen, while Mauritania said it was trying to stop an imminent attack by fighters gathering at the base.
For the French, the raid may have backfired. The al Qaeda group said in an audio message broadcast on Monday that it had killed Germaneau in retaliation.
However, French officials suggested that the hostage, who had a heart problem, might already have been dead.
“We have no proof of life or death [even now],” one official said.
Between 400 and 500 terrorists are thought to roam the Sahel, a desert expanse as large as the European Union.