France’s push for military action to sweep Islamic radicals out of its former colony Mali appears to be making headway but the human stakes involved are also becoming painfully clear.
Relatives of six French hostages being held there by the north African wing of Al-Qaeda (AQIM) say every declaration President Francois Hollande makes in support of intervention heightens their anxiety over the fate of their loved ones.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday it would be “weeks, not months” until a French-backed force of West African troops was ready to begin deploying to Mali. Its mission will be to reclaim control of the north of the country from AQIM and its allies, shore up the central government and prevent Mali from becoming a breeding ground for terrorism within striking distance of Europe.
AQIM warned last week that Hollande’s support for military action risked “opening the door to hell for the hostages”, but there has been no let-up in Paris’ campaign to drum up international support for intervention.
A French-drafted resolution calling on West African states to speed up preparations for the creation of a 3,000-strong force was adopted last week by the UN Security Council and, also at Paris’s request, EU foreign ministers this week promised political and practical help for the mission.
All of which has only heightened the perpetual sense of dread felt by hostages’ families, some of whom Hollande received this week at the Elysee Palace. Jean-Pierre Verdon, the father of Philippe Verdon, who was kidnapped along with Serge Lazarevic in Hombori, northern Mali on November 24, 2011, said all the families had become “extremely anxious” in the face of recent developments.
“We came out of our meeting with the president convinced that he is committed to doing everything he can but we are very, very worried about the current tensions and the possibility of a military intervention,” he said.
Lazarevic’s daughter Diane adds: “What Francois Hollande had to say was reassuring but our feeling is that the more time that passes, the harder the situation becomes. “The president wants to separate the question of an intervention and negotiations with them but for us, if there is a conflict it will be complete agony.”
Verdon and Lazarevic are considered to be the hostages most at risk of a retaliatory killing as AQIM claims they are French spies, a charge rejected by their families.
— “We know how to do money” —
The other four French hostages, employees of nuclear group Areva and its subsidiary Satom, have been held for over two years since being seized on September 16, 2010 in the north of neighbouring Niger.
Fears Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dole and Marc Feret had already been killed were allayed last month when a recent video surfaced in which they appealed to the French government to enter negotiations with their captors aimed at seeking their release.
Under Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiations with hostage-takers were widely understood to involve ransoms. “We know how to do money,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying in a recent book by Herve Ghesquiere, one of two French TV journalists freed after being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for over a year.
Hollande, allies say, wants to break with an approach he believes only encourages more hostage-taking. Socialist lawmaker Francois Loncle, the co-author of a parliamentary report on the Sahel crisis, says France has no option but to switch to the ‘no ransoms, ever’ policy of its ally Britain.
“We have to stop paying,” he says. “I understand it is difficult for the families to accept that, but everything turns on that. It is the only way we will stop the cycle of hostage-taking.” Britain paid the price of its policy when hostage Edwin Dyer was killed in Mali in 2009.
France has also seen its citizens killed in captivity albeit in different circumstances. In January 2011, Vincent Delory and Antoine de Leocour, kidnapped in Niger, died during a failed rescue attempt by special forces in Mali.
Diplomatic sources say kidnappers in the Sahel have been paid around $50 million in ransoms over the last decade. For some, that figure added to reports of amputations being carried out under the Islamic law that AQIM and co. have imposed on northern Mali make up a compelling case for military intervention.
But it is easy to understand the misgivings expressed by Pascal Lupart, president of Verdon and Lazarevic’s support committee. “Is military intervention going to get rid of the leaders of Al-Qaeda?” he asks. “If it goes ahead, is there going to be a parallel operation to rescue the hostages?”
They are tough questions and Hollande knows they may become a lot tougher if and when military action gets under way.