Al-Qaeda’s north African branch has released a video depicting seven kidnapped Westerners. The video was received by Mauritanian news agency ANI, which indicates that all the captives seemed to be in good health. France’s Foreign Ministry has announced that the hostage video seems to be “credible.”
The newly released video depicts seven hostages, including four Frenchmen and a Dutchman, who were kidnapped from a uranium compound in northern Niger exactly three years ago; along with a Swede and a South African who were abducted from a hostel in Timbuktu in northern Mali November 2011 in an attack that left a German man dead. In the video, which was released to Mauritanian news agency ANI, Frenchman Daniel Larribe, 61, introduces himself as the head of the French group, stating that he was kidnapped by militants belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). According to ANI, Mr. Larribe states that he is “…in good health but threatened with death,” adding that he holds the French authorities responsible for his fate. The video also includes statements from the other French hostages, including Pierre Legrand, Theirry Dol and Marc Feret as well as South African Stephen Malcolm, Dutchman Sjaak Rijke and Swede Johna Gustafsson. It also shows the French hostages reportedly urging the French administration, as well as their family members, to work for their release. At the time of their kidnapping, the four Frenchmen were mostly working for French public nuclear giant Areva and its subcontractor Satom. They were kidnapped in Arlit, northern Niger, on 16 September 2010. At the time, Daniel’s wife, Francoise Larribe, was also captured however she was released in 2011.
Although it remains unclear when the video was made, officials from ANI have indicated that the messages recorded by the French hostages were made in June of this year. Furthermore, this is the first video that is said to depict the men since France launched an intervention in Mali in January after al-Qaeda-linked militants threatened to overrun the capital Bamako.
According French Foreign Ministry spokesman, Philippe Lalliot, “based on an initial analysis, the video seems credible to us and provides new proof of life of the four French hostages kidnaped in Arlit (northern Niger) on September 16, 2010,” adding that the footage was being authenticated.
AQIM is currently believed to be holding eight European hostages, including five French nationals. According to French prosecutors, one of the French hostages, Philippe Verdon, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2011 and found dead earlier this year, was executed with a shot to the head. Officials in France believe that his killing was in retaliation to France’s intervention in Mali. A fifth hostage, Serge Lazarevic, was kidnapped along with Mr. Verdon from their hotel in Hombori on the night of 24 November 2011. Shortly after their kidnapping, the families of the two men insisted that they were not mercenaries or secret service agents. These comments were in response to threats made by AQIM militants stating that the two hostages would be killed as they were French spies.
While the newly released video depicts the pleas of the French hostages for their release, it is highly unlikely that the French government will get involved, and that their plight will be publicly discussed. Although in July of this year French President Francois Hollande announced that France was “doing everything” to bring the hostages back, he indicated that officials would “…not talk so as not to complicate a situation which is bad enough.”
At least sixteen people have been burned alive or hacked to death with machetes, while dozens more have been wounded after two days of ethnic clashes took place in Guinea. Meanwhile in Mali, the body of French hostage Philippe Verdon, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2011 and found dead several weeks ago, has been flown back to Paris on Wednesday after tests confirmed his identity.
The violence in the West African state broke out in the southern forest region early on Monday when petrol station guards from the Guerze tribe in the town of Koule beat to death an ethnic Konianke youth whom they had accused of stealing. Fighting rapidly spread to the nearby provincial capital of N’Zerekore, which is located 570 kilometers (350 miles) southeast of Conakry. Several homes have been destroyed as a result of the fighting. According to Alert Damatang Camara, who is a government spokesman, “the violence recorded since Monday in Koule, and then in N’Zerekore, has left 16 people dead and some 80 wounded.” He further indicated that security forces have been deployed “en masse” to the affected regions and that calm was beginning to return to the streets. During a televised address to the nation, Guinea’s President called for calm and unity and has promised to bring those behind the violence to justice.
A number of witnesses have reported that members of the Guerzes and Koniankes tribes have been attacking one another with machetes, axes, sticks, stones and firearms, and that some of the houses and cars in the region had been set on fire. Communal violence has been common in the region, which is located near the border with Liberia, where clashes between the two tribes regularly break out over religious and other grievances. The indigenous Guerze are mostly Christian or animist, while the Konianke are Muslims who are considered to be close to Liberia’s Mandingo ethnic community. During Liberia’s civil war, which concluded in 2003, rebels fighting the forces of then-president Charles Taylor drew much of their support from the Mandingo community. The Guerze, who are known as Kpelle in Liberia, were generally considered to be supporters of forces who were loyal to Taylor who was jailed last year for “aiding and abetting” war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
According to sources on the ground in Paris, France, relatives and loved ones of Mr. Verdon gathered in a private room at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport in order to retrieve the body, which was flown back on an Air France plane that landed around 0700 GMT. The French foreign ministry had announced on Sunday that Mr. Verdon’s body had likely been found at the beginning of July. This is months later after the 53-year-old’s captors had announced in March that they had killed him, however at the time, officials in Paris had never confirmed his death. On Tuesday, the French president’s office confirmed that the body found in northern Mali was that of Mr. Verdon, however no information surrounding the details of his death have been released. An autopsy has been scheduled in order to determine exactly how he died. Mr. Verdon was known to have suffered from an ulcer and tachycardia when he had left for Mali in 2011. According Pascal Lupart, head of a support committee for Mr. Verdon, “for us, its possible that Philippe died because of his illnesses and that AQIM used this and staged a killing.”
The French foreign ministry announced on Sunday in Paris that the body of a French hostage, who was announced killed by his al-Qaeda captors back in March of this year, has “very likely” been found in Mali. The announcement was followed by French leaders vowing that “we will determine the cause of death and nothing will go unpunished.” While in Mauritania, a Canadian has been released after being charged with having links to al-Qaeda militants in Mali.
Tests are currently being done in order to confirm if the body, which was found in early July, is in fact that of Philippe Verdon, who was kidnapped by militants belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) from a hotel while on a business trip in northeastern Mali in November 2011. Foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lallot indicated on Sunday that “there is a very strong possibility that a body recently found in northern Mali is unfortunately that” of Mr. Verdon. Earlier on Sunday, French President Francois Hollande also noted in an interview that Mr. Verdon had appeared to have been killed, stating that “we have the worst of news on Philippe Verdon…everything indicates that he died weeks ago.” According to reports, the body was found ten days ago in northern Mali.
In March of this year, AQIM announced that it had killed 53-year-old Verdon, however French authorities had not officially confirmed his death at the time. With the announcement of a possible confirmation of the death of Philippe Verdon, it is necessary to note that AQIM is still holding eight Europeans hostage, including five French nationals. Theirry Dol, Daniel Larribe, Pierre Legrand and Marc Feret, who were mostly working for French public nuclear giant Areva and its subcontractor Satom, were kidnapped in Niger by al-Qaeda-linked militants on 16 September 2010. Francoise Larribe, wife of Daniel Larribe, was also captured, however she was released in 2011. The fifth French hostage, Serge Lazarevic, was kidnapped along with Mr. Verdon on the night of 24 November 2011 while they were staying at their hotel in Hombori. In late June of this year, AQIM indicated that the eight Europeans were still alive and that they would soon release a new video depicting the five Frenchmen. However no video has yet been released and their current whereabouts remain unknown.
The families of the two men have insisted that they were no mercenaries or secret service agents however AQIM has firmly indicated that they were killed because of their role as spies for the French government. In response to the possible death of Mr. Verdon and the other hostages who remain in captivity, President Hollande indicated on Sunday that France was “doing everything” to bring the hostages back.
Meanwhile in Mauritania, a court on Sunday freed a Canadian who was jailed for attempting to join an al-Qaeda training camp in neighbouring Mali.
Aaron Yoon was serving two years in Nouakchott after he was convicted in July of last year, however his sentence was later reduced in an appeal brought by the prosecution who were asking for the term to be extended to ten years. According to a source, “the Canadian Aaron Yoon was sentenced by an appeals court on Sunday to a year and a half in prison but he was already spent his time in jail and must therefore leave the penitentiary immediately.”
According to the indictment against him, Mr. Yoon was originally arrested in December 2011 when he attempted to visit the camps of AQIM in Mali. He however has denied any links to terrorism, stating that he had come to mauritania from Morocco in order to study the Koran and to learn Arabic. However authorities in Mauritania have maintained that he had “strong links with AQIM terrorists and his plan to join the movement is indisputable.” A judicial source further noted that “we cannot say how and when but he must leave the prison and will probably be removed from the country.” There is currently no information as to whether Mr. Yoon will return to Canada.
The French Presidency has confirmed that death of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, stating that he was killed in fighting in Mali. While this confirmation has ended weeks of speculation about whether one of the group’s leading commanders had been killed, it nevertheless increases fears for the lives and safety of the remaining fourteen French hostages who are being held in captivity in the Sahel region.
The death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior figure in AQIM, has been confirmed by France, which noted that DNA samples had made it possible to formally identify him. A statement released by the Elysee Presidential Palace indicated that “the President of the French Republic confirms with certainty the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid after an offensive by the French army in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in the north of Mali, at the end of February.” The statement went onto say that the death of “one of the main leaders of AQIM marks an important stage in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region.”
Last month, officials in Chad had claimed that Chadian forces fighting alongside French troops in northern Mali had killed Abou Zeid on 22 February. Days later, reports surfaced that fellow militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar was also killed in fighting that occurred in the mountainous regions of northern Mali. The fate of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was reportedly killed on 2 March 2013, has yet to be confirmed. Although AQIM formally acknowledged the death of Abou Zeid, officials in France made little comment regarding his death, stating that while it is “probable” that the commander was killed in fighting, the death would not be confirmed by French officials until a body was produced and verification through DNA testing was completed. Speculation mounted that France’s reluctance in confirming the death of Abou Zeid was due to fears that the remaining French hostages may be used as human shields during bombing raid, or that they could be subjected to reprisal executions.
Abou Zeid, who is believed to be 47, was a pillar of AQIM. Considered to be one of the most radical AQIM leaders, he is responsible for the death of at least two European hostages as well as the leader of the extremist takeover of northern Mali in March 2012. In June 2009, his men kidnapped British tourist Edwin Dyer. According to a number of eye witness reports, Abou Zeid personally beheaded the British national.
While the death of Abou Zeid was confirmed by members of AQIM weeks ago, France’s official acknowledgement and confirmation may result in militant rebels in Mali carrying out retaliatory hit-and-run attacks in an attempt to place increased pressure on France to withdraw its military intervention. Likewise, the lives of the French hostages will likely be in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death. Unconfirmed reports released earlier this week indicated that a French hostage had been executed in Mali on 10 March 2013. A man claiming to be a spokesman for AQIM stated that Philippe Verdon was “killed on 10 March in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.” While there was no mention of his execution being directly linked to the death of Abou Zeid, it is highly likely that today’s confirmation by France may lead to further executions which will undoubtedly be blamed on his death.
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.