By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 24, 2010; A06
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 of the attack, mounted early Thursday near the border of Mali and Mauritania, were tightly held by the governments concerned. But as reports filtered out, it seemed 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 far from the headline-making events 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 further defining the support. In Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, Ould Boilil said the raid was designed to prevent a planned attack on a military base in Mauritania.
French officials declined to comment on reports that the commandos and the French military had engaged in a joint operation to free a 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 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 País, a Madrid newspaper, quoted diplomatic sources as reporting that French special forces were directly involved in the raid. El País said that the unspoken goal was to liberate Germaneau but that he was not at the campsite, contrary to electronic intelligence supplied by the United States. Bernard Valero, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman, declined to confirm or deny the El País report. "From the beginning, we have been fully mobilized to get our fellow citizen liberated," he said.
Operating in small groups believed to total no more than 500 combatants, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has remained largely in the isolated desert region 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.