JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, one of the violent Al Qaeda-linked militias active in North and West Africa, claims to have executed a French hostage in retaliation for France's military operation in Mali.
France intervened in the West African nation in January at the request of the Malian government, after several militias, including the Al Qaeda affiliate, swept toward central Mali after earlier taking over all of the country's north.
The French military and other African forces, including those of Mali, are involved in heavy fighting in a northern mountainous region, Adrar des Ifoghas, where the militias holed up after losing control of the major northern towns. France has about 4,000 troops in Mali, in an operation designed to wipe out militias seen as posing a terrorist threat to Europe. The French government has promised its military action will be swift.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb told a Mauritanian news agency, Nouakchott Information Agency (ANI) Tuesday that Philippe Verdon was beheaded March 10. The news agency cited an AQIM spokesman identified as Ghairawani.
About 15 French hostages are still being held in the region.
The militia's spokesman accused Verdon of spying and said French President Francois Hollande bore responsibility for the fates of other hostages.
A French foreign ministry spokesman told French media that the ministry was trying to verify the claim.
Verdon and another Frenchman, Serge Lazarevic, were abducted in November 2011 in the northern Malian town of Hombori, where they worked as geologists for a Malian company.
In a video released last April, Verdon said their living conditions were difficult and called on French authorities to negotiate their release.
Among the remaining French hostages still being held by Al Qaeda affiliates is a family of seven, including four children, kidnapped recently in Cameroon and taken by motorcycle into northern Nigeria.
In the past, the militias in Mali have made lucrative ransom deals to bankroll their operations, and France is reported to have paid multimillion dollar ransoms to free its citizens. But since Hollande took office last year, France has ruled out paying ransoms or negotiating for the lives of hostages. The kidnappers' tactics appear to have changed, dangling the lives of hostages in the hope France will withdraw.
Francoise Larribe, the wife of hostage Daniel Larribe, told the French newspaper Le Monde this week that Hollande met with the families of hostages in January to tell them France would not pay ransoms to free their family members because the government was at war with the Islamist militias in Mali.
Verdon's father, Jean-Pierre Verdon, unaware his son had already been beheaded, told French radio Tuesday that the family had no news of any kind.
"We are told nothing. On the French side, we are told nothing. The jihadists don't talk either. We are totally in the dark and it is insufferable," he said.
The elder Verdon was officially informed Wednesday morning of the claim his son had been executed. He told the Agence France-Presse news agency that he believed his son was dead.
"I'm not under any illusion, but I will wait for confirmation," he said.
Four hostages seized in 2010 were reportedly held by an Algerian-born Al Qaeda commander, Abou Zeid, responsible for the kidnappings of about 20 foreigners. However, Chadian forces reported that Abou Zeid was killed in fighting in Mali last month, along with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb leader who took hundreds of people hostage in a southern Algeria gas plant in January.
The AQIM spokesman, Ghairawani, was asked Tuesday whether Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar had been killed, but he neither confirmed nor denied the reports.
Russia finds no evidence of torture in Sergei Magnitsky case
A Marine salutes the flag in Iraq -- the story behind the photo
Rights groups hail surrender of Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda