France declares war on al-Qaeda

2010-07-28 08:07

France has declared war on al-Qaeda, and matched its fighting words with a first attack on a base camp of the terror network’s North African branch, after terrorists killed a French aid worker taken hostage in April.

The declaration and attack marked a shift in strategy for France, usually discrete about its behind-the-scenes battle against terrorism.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said yesterday: “We are at war with al-Qaeda.”

This came a day after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the death of 78-year-old hostage Michel Germaneau.

The humanitarian worker had been abducted April 20 or 22 in Niger by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and was later taken to Mali, officials said.

The killers will “not go unpunished,” Sarkozy said in unusually strong language, given France’s habit of employing quiet co-operation with its regional allies – Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria – in which the al-Qaeda franchise was spawned amid an Islamist insurgency.

The Salafist Group for Call and Combat formally merged with al-Qaeda in 2006 and spread through the Sahel region – parts of Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

Officials suggest France will activate accords with these countries to stop the terrorists in their tracks.

Defence Minister Herve Morin said: “It’s a universal threat that concerns the entire world not just France or the West. We will support local authorities so these assassins and their commanders are tracked, judged and taken before justice and punished. And, yes, we will help them.”

Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger in April opened a joint military headquarters deep in the desert to respond to threats from traffickers and the al-Qaeda offshoot.

US Special Forces have helped the four nations train troops in recent years.

The United States said it would help the French “in any way that we can” to bring those who killed Germaneau to justice, according to US State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley.

Crowley said: “There is no religion that sanctions what can only be described as cold-blooded murder.”

Fillon refused to say how France would act. “But we will,” he said in an interview with Europe 1 radio.

And perhaps it already has.

On Thursday, the French-backed Mauritanian forces attacked an al-Qaeda camp on the border with Mali, killing at least six suspected terrorists. It is the first time France is known to have attacked an al-Qaeda base.

France said it was a last-ditch effort to save its citizens, while Mauritania said it was trying to stop an imminent attack by fighters gathering at the base.

For the French, the move may have backfired.

The al-Qaeda group said in an audio message broadcast on Sunday that it had killed Germaneau in retaliation for the raid.

However, French officials suggested, however, that the hostage, who had a heart problem, may already have been dead. Even now, “We have no proof of life or death,” Morin said.

Antoine Sfeir, an expert on Islamist terrorists who has travelled in the region, said: “We can expect an increase in the French riposte.”

An estimated 400-500 such fighters are thought to roam the Sahel region, a desert expanse as large as the European Union.

Despite meagre numbers, the region’s al-Qaeda fighters pose a clear threat.

Among the more recent victims, a British captive was beheaded last year and two Spanish aid workers were taken hostage in Mauritania in November.

Spain is working to free them.

Mauritanian soldiers also have fallen in numerous attacks.

The head of the French Institute of Strategic Analysis suggested the French government’s rhetoric was normal.

Francois Gere said: “It’s important to make that kind of announcement. I think it’s made of the same stuff as former U.S. President George W. Bush’s tough line on al-Qaeda.”

But “a government has to make clear it must respond strongly” while maintaining the discretion needed to ensure cooperation, Gere said.

In the past France has been cautious because those governments don’t want the appearance of interference from the West, he said.

Spain has maintained a low profile as videos by the al-Qaeda franchise regularly call for the conquest of al-Andalus – a reference to the period of Muslim rule of much of Spain in medieval times.

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