Hollande has maintained that wiping out the guerrilla groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the only effective way to resolve the often-repeated drama of French citizens being taken captive in northwestern Africa. But as his troops close in on the hostage-takers’ last Malian refuge, the rock-strewn Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, families of the hostages have voiced fears that their loved ones could be executed in an act of desperation by trapped Islamist fighters.
Families of four of the hostages issued a statement Monday calling on Hollande to suspend attacks temporarily to allow time for negotiations with the Islamist guerrillas, saying “the intensity of clashes can endanger our loved ones’ lives, and we believe each encounter could be fatal to them.” The Islamist groups took their captives in part as collateral for such negotiations, they reasoned, and so Hollande should give talks a chance before the irreparable happens.
“After the military operations, we need a pause, a strategy that, instead of being a strategy of force, is a strategy of political opening and dialogue,” said Pierre Robert, grandfather of Pierre Legrand, who has been held in the embattled Sahel region since September 2010.
There was no direct response from Hollande, but French officials made it clear that their combat operations would continue despite the families’ fears.
“We are going to finish the job,” said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a television appearance Tuesday that he and Hollande understand the anguish about the hostages and that, from the information available to the French government, “we have every reason to believe they are alive.”
Le Drian described clashes underway in the northeastern Mali mountains, which include close-range combat with assault rifles, as “some of the most violent” since the operation began. Two French soldiers have been killed there in the past 10 days, bringing to three the number of French service members killed during the intervention.
French commentators speculated that at least some of the hostages are held in the Adrar des Ifoghas range because the region is where AQIM and related guerrilla groups had their headquarters and stored their arsenals of assault rifles, explosives and gasoline. But Adm. Edouard Guillaud, the French military’s chief of staff, said in a radio interview Monday that French authorities have no solid information on where the hostages are held and added that they could have been dispersed to other hideouts.