Unconfirmed reports have indicated that a French hostage has been executed in Mali. A man claiming to be a spokesman for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has stated in a telephone call to Mauritania’s Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI) news agency that Philippe Verdon was “killed on 10 March 2013 in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.” Although the news agency could not confirm whether or not the spokesman is in fact a member of AQIM, ANI did confirm that they had received a phone call from a man who presented himself as Al-Qairawani and who claimed that the “spy” Verdon had been executed. He further stated that “the French President Hollande is responsible for the lives of the other French hostages.” In the past, al-Qaeda groups have often used ANI in order to broadcast their claims or statements, which often turn out to be true.
Mr. Verdon was seized on the night of 24 November 2011 along with Serge Lazarevic. According to their families, the two men had been on a business trip when they were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori, in northeastern Mali. The families of the two men have however denied that they were secret service agents. Shortly after the kidnapping, AQIM claimed responsibility and in August 2012, a video depicting Mr. Verdon describing the “difficult living conditions” was released.
Early Wednesday morning, a French Foreign Office spokesman indicated that they were attempting to verify the reports of the killing. Currently, no further information has been provided however a spokesman for the French Foreign Office has confirmed that the family of Mr. Verdon has been notified. If these reports are confirmed to be true, it will be a worrying development for Paris as it will greatly increase the risk of those hostages who are being held in Africa. There are still some fourteen French nationals who are being held in West Africa, including at least six who are being held in the Sahel by AQIM and its affiliates. Over the past few weeks, a number of the hostages‘ families have expressed their growing fears for their loved ones in light of the ongoing French intervention in Mali.
The French-led military intervention in Mali has entered into its third week with French and Malian troops currently advancing towards the town of Gao after earlier retaking the northern town of Hombori. Meanwhile, militant extremists have struck back with the bombing of a strategic bridge in the region.
Official reports have confirmed that French and Malian troops have retaken the town of Hombori, which is located 160km (100 miles) from the Islamist stronghold of Gao. The movement towards Gao follows several days of air strikes which targeted Islamist bases, fuel stock and weapon dumps near the town. While troops are currently on their way to regain Gao, in the west, the French-led forces who recaptured the town of Diabaly on Monday are pushing towards the town of Lere, with the eventual plans of taking control of Timbuktu which lies further north. Gao is just one of three major northern towns, along with Kidal and Timbuktu, where al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have imposed a strict form of Sharia law over the past ten months..
Meanwhile, reports have indicated that rebels have blown up the Tassiga bridge which links Gao to neighbouring Niger. The bridge likes on the quickest route from Niger to Gao. More than 2,000 Chadian soldiers and 500 troops from Niger were planning to use this route in order to deploy and open a second front against the Islamists from the east. Although there is a detour, which is an additional three to six miles, that eventually links to the Niger-Gao road, it is currently unknown which direction these troops will take in order to link up with AU forces in Mali.
A large international troop-build up will continue over the weekend, ahead of a probable French-led air and ground offensive that will take place in Gao and other desert cities. Currently, France has 2,000 troops in Mali. More than 1,000 soldiers from Nigeria are expected to arrive in Mali within the coming days.