A 78-year-old French aid worker kidnapped by al-Qaida was executed in the Sahara after a failed attempt to free him left six militants dead, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday.
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-Qaida's North African branch, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghbreb, said in a message broadcast Sunday the Frenchman was killed in retaliation for the deaths of six al-Qaida members in a military operation in the Sahara last week.
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," Sarkozy said in a public address after an emergency government meeting in Paris on Monday.
That effort failed and Germaneau was killed "in cold blood," 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 the military raid took place last Thursday.
Amid increasing concerns about terrorism and trafficking in northwest Africa, four countries — Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger — in April opened a joint military headquarters deep in the desert. The goal has been to establish a collective response to threats from traffickers and the al-Qaida offshoot.
The United States is also trying to help and has provided U.S.-run training sessions for African troops in the area.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb had given France until Monday to help secure the release of its jailed members in the region, warning that Germaneau would be executed if Paris failed to comply.
"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," the group's leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, said in the message broadcast on Al-Jazeera television.
"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," he added.
The precise circumstances of the recent military raid in northwest Africa remain a mystery.
The al-Qaida offshoot is also holding two Spanish aid workers, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta, who were taken hostage in Mauritania in November.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was leaving later Monday for three-nation swing among Mali, Mauritania and Niger to discuss what to do next.