French forces aid Mauritanian commandos in deadly raid on terrorist camp

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; 8:16 PM

PARIS -- Mauritanian commandos backed by the French military carried out the raid in the dead of night, guns blazing as they pounced on a small terrorist campsite in a desolate stretch of the Sahara Desert.

The troops killed six members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Osama bin Laden's loosely organized North African affiliate, but four militants escaped into the surrounding wastelands, Mauritanian Interior Minister Mohamed Ould Boilil said Friday.

Details about the attack, mounted early Thursday near the border between Mali and Mauritania, were tightly held by the governments concerned. But as reports filtered out, it seemed to be another inconclusive chapter in the little-noticed struggle by several North African nations to snuff out a tiny al-Qaeda-style movement hiding in the Sahara Desert far from the headlines of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

The French Defense Ministry said Friday that the Mauritanian military carried out the raid "with technical and logistical support" from France, without defining what the support consisted of. In Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, Ould Boilil told reporters the raid was designed to prevent a planned attack on a military base in Mauritania.

French officials declined to comment on reports the commandos were part of a joint operation with the French military seeking to free a 78-year-old French hostage, Michel Germaneau, a retired engineer who was kidnapped April 22 in neighboring Niger. The terrorist group threatened last week to execute Germaneau if several of its imprisoned members were not released by Monday.

In a video recording distributed by the group in May, Germaneau complained of poor health and asked French President Nicolas Sarkozy to find a solution to his abduction. Six weeks later, the group published the execution threat.

The Web site of El Pais, a respected Madrid newspaper, quoted diplomatic sources reporting that French special forces were directly involved in the raid, which given its remote location was thought to have involved helicopters. It said the unspoken goal was to liberate Germaneau but that he was not at the campsite as had been believed on the strength of electronic intelligence supplied by the United States.

Bernard Valero, the French Foreign Ministry spokesman, declined to confirm or deny the El Pais report. "From the beginning, we have been fully mobilized to get our fellow citizen liberated," he said. "We are also very worried because we have not received any demands from the kidnappers and we have expended unstinting efforts to establish contact, which the kidnappers have so far refused."

The group kidnapped two Spanish citizens last year in Mauritania. As far as is known, the two, Albert Vilalta and Roque Pascual, are still being held. Several other Spanish and French hostages have been released in the past several years in exchange for ransoms or liberation of militants jailed in North African countries. But a British hostage, Edwin Dyer, was executed last year after London refused a demand for the release of Abu Qatada, an Islamist figure imprisoned in Britain.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which grew from the armed Islamic underground that unsuccessfully fought to overthrow the Algerian government in the 1990s, was endorsed in 2006 by bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as part of al-Qaeda's international jihad. Operating in small groups believed to total no more than 500 combatants, it has remained largely in the vast expanse of isolated desert where Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria come together.

But terrorism specialists said some of its units have raised large amounts of money through ransom and duties imposed on cigarette and drug smugglers passing through the remote desert to avoid government authority. The U.S. military has organized a training program for regional armies to help them combat the group's activities.

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