Al Qa'eda kills French hostage in North Africa

A kidnapped aid worker aged 78 was murdered in the Sahara after a failed attempt to free him left six militants dead.

PARIS // A 78-year-old French aid worker kidnapped by al Qa'eda was murdered in the Sahara after a failed attempt to free him left six militants dead, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said today. Mr Sarkozy condemned the killing of Michel Germaneau, and said his killers "will not go unpunished." He said the killing illustrated the need to keep up the fight against terrorism. The leader of al Qa'eda's North African branch, al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb, said in a message broadcast yesterday that the Frenchman was killed in retaliation for the deaths of six al Qa'eda members in a military operation in the Sahara last week.

Mr Sarkozy defended France's decision to take part in that operation with troops from Mauritania as a last-ditch effort to free Germaneau. "Convinced he was condemned to a certain death, we had the duty to make this effort to pull him free from his captors," Mr Sarkozy said in a public address after an emergency government meeting in Paris today. That effort failed and Germaneau was killed "in cold blood", Mr Sarkozy said, without specifying when or where.

Germaneau was abducted April 22 in Niger, and officials later said he was taken to Mali. European newspapers had reported tat the military raid took place last Thursday. Four countries, Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, in April opened a joint military headquarters deep in the desert, amid increasing concerns about terrorism and trafficking in northwest Africa. The goal has been to establish a collective response to threats from traffickers and the al Qa'eda offshoot.

The United States is also trying to help and has provided US-run training sessions for African troops in the area. Al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb had given France until today to help secure the release of its jailed members in the region, warning that Germaneau would be "executed" if Paris failed to comply. The group's leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, said in the message broadcast on Al Jazeera television: "As a quick response to the despicable French act, we confirm that we have killed hostage Germaneau in revenge for our six brothers who were killed in the treacherous operation.

"Sarkozy has [not only] failed to free his compatriot in this failed operation, but he opened the doors of hell for himself and his people," Droukdel said. The precise circumstances of the recent military raid in northwest Africa remain unknown. Germaneau worked in the Algerian oil sector before retiring, . He later ran an aid group called Enmilal that worked in African countries. In a clip released by his captors in May, Germaneau appealed to Mr Sarkozy to "find a good solution for me." He said he was suffering from a heart condition and he had run out of medicine.

The al Qa'eda offshoot is also holding two Spanish aid workers, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta, who were taken hostage in Mauritania in November. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, was leaving later today for a trip to Mali, Mauritania and Niger to discuss what to do next. * AP