, PARIS, Jul 23 – French-backed Mauritanian forces attacked and "neutralised" an Al-Qaeda affiliated kidnap gang plotting attacks from a base in the North African desert, officials said Friday.
The French defence ministry said the group that was targeted had been responsible for the murder of a British hostage and was refusing to negotiate the release of a 78-year-old French aid worker kidnapped four months ago.
There was no word on the fate of the French hostage, who does not appear to have been present when Thursday\’s pre-dawn assault was launched.
Spanish newspapers reported that the Madrid government was concerned for the fate of two of its citizens who had been taken in the same region.
"Several armed terrorists were killed and wounded at the base, located in the desert, which serves as a refuge for terrorist fighters from the nebulous Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," a Mauritanian official told AFP.
"The operation which targeted a terrorist base is complete," he added.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the North African affiliate of Saudi militant Osama bin Laden\’s loose network of Islamist groups.
In Paris, the defence ministry confirmed "that the French military provided technical and logistical support to a Mauritanian operation designed to thwart an attack on Mauritania by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb."
Paris did not give any details on the nature of its forces\’ involvement, but Spanish newspapers and the website of the French daily Liberation said French special forces commandos had been involved in the raid.
Neither French nor Mauritanian officials would confirm whether the raid was an attempt to rescue the French hostage, but the French defence ministry said the targets of the raid were thought to be linked to his disappearance.
"The group of terrorists targeted by the Mauritanian operation was the one that killed a British hostage a year ago and which has refused to give \’proof of life\’ and enter talks on freeing our compatriot Michel Germaneau," it said.
A Malian source who has mediated talks to release several Westerners kidnapped in the region told AFP: "The Mauritanians went to the Sahara where the French hostage was being held.
"It seems they went to find him but he could not be located."
Germaneau was kidnapped in April in Niger and French authorities believe he is being held somewhere on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert, probably in a remote area of Mauritania\’s neighbour Mali.
The French statement did not say where the raid took place. Sources in Africa had earlier suggested the Mauritanian force had crossed into Mali.
British hostage Edwin Dyer, 60, was one of a group of six Westerners kidnapped by Islamic extremists in the Sahel region bordering the Sahara desert between December and January 2009.
Malian authorities blamed his murder on AQIM cell leader Abou Zeid, also known as Abib Hammadou, a 43-year-old 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.
France is the former colonial ruler of several countries in the region, including Mali, Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso.
Germaneau was kidnapped in northern Niger in April when he was working with the Enmilal aid group to improve health services and schools in the impoverished Sahel country.
France says it has received no demands from Germaneau\’s kidnappers and takes their 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.