French President Nicolas Sarkozy convened a crisis meeting Monday after an Al-Qaeda affiliate in the Sahara said it had killed a 78-year-old French hostage to avenge a deadly but failed rescue raid.
French authorities said they were trying to verify the claim, made by the head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in an audio statement broadcast by Al-Jazeera.
"We announce that we executed the French hostage Michel Germaneau on Saturday July 24, 2010, to avenge the killing of our six brothers in the cowardly French raid," on Thursday, AQIM chief Abu Musab Abdul Wadud said.
"Sarkozy failed to free his compatriot in this operation but he has, without any doubt, opened for his people and for his country one of the gates of hell," Wadud warned.
"In a rapid and just response to the ignoble actions of France, we announce that we have executed the French hostage."
The emergency meeting at 9:00 am would include Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defence Minister Herve Morin, the president's office announced.
The French presidency said it had received "no confirmation" of the killing of Germaneau, who was kidnapped in northern Niger on April 19, adding that it was trying to verify the claim.
But a senior French official who asked not to be named told AFP Sunday that Paris was convinced that Germaneau had "been dead for several weeks."
On May 14, his abductors issued a photo of an exhausted-looking Germaneau, together with a taped message in which he appealed to Sarkozy to work for his release.
He said he suffered from a serious heart illness and had no more medication and that he was struggling with the heat.
Germaneau's Algerian driver, who was also abducted, was later released. He said the Frenchman was being held in a desert zone in Mali.
AQIM on July 11 gave France a 15-day deadline to help secure the release of its members in the region, warning that Germaneau would be killed if Paris failed to comply.
The looming deadline saw between 20 and 30 French soldiers involved in a raid Thursday on a remote camp in the Malian desert by Mauritanian forces.
Six members of AQIM, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden's network, were killed in the operation, officials have said.
Documents, bomb-making equipment, guns and ammunition were found during the pre-dawn assault but soldiers found no evidence that Germaneau had been held there.
Earlier on Sunday, Mali security sources expressed growing fears for Germaneau's fate after the failed raid and the mayor of the Paris region where he lived said he believed the hostage's chances of survival were slim.
"Either Michel Germaneau has been executed, or the terrorists are about to do it," Olivier Thomas, the mayor of Marcoussis, told AFP.
Germaneau was working with the Enmilal aid agency to improve health services and schools at the time of his kidnap.
France has said it had received no direct demands from Germaneau's kidnappers but was taking their reported threat to kill him seriously.
AQIM is also holding two Spaniards in the region after kidnapping them more than seven months ago: Albert Vilalta, 35, and 50-year-old Roque Pascual.
France had "consulted" Spain over Thursday's operation, said a French defence ministry source.
The raid had prompted "anxiety" in Madrid over how it might affect the Spanish hostages, according to Spanish media reports.
AQIM has also been held responsible for the murder of British hostage Edwin Dyer, 60, who was kidnapped by Islamic extremists in the Sahel region bordering the Sahara desert in January 2009.
Malian authorities blamed that killing on AQIM cell leader Abou Zeid, also known as Abib Hammadou, a 43-year-old Algerian who is listed on United Nations documents as a known Al-Qaeda member.
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