French-backed Mauritanian forces attacked and killed six members of an Al-Qaeda affiliated gang allegedly holding a French hostage in the North African desert, officials said Friday.
The French defence ministry said the group was refusing to negotiate the release of a 78-year-old French aid worker kidnapped four months ago, and had been responsible for the murder of a British hostage last year.
Asked about the raid -- which some French and Spanish media portrayed as a failed hostage rescue bid -- President Nicolas Sarkozy refused to comment.
There was no word on the fate of the French captive, who does not appear to have been present when Thursday's pre-dawn assault was launched, and Mauritania said that the operation was not intended as a rescue.
In the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, Interior Minister Mohamed Ould Boilil thanked France for its support, particularly in intelligence gathering, and said the operation had been a success.
"The operation did not take place on our territory but not far from our border," he said, implicitly confirming reports that the assault had been launched in a remote area of neighbouring Mali.
"A large arsenal of explosives, weapons and ammunition was seized, along with telecommunications equipment," he said, adding that six members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were killed and four had fled.
The minister said that there were no casualties on the government side and that the raid had been launched not to rescue the Frenchman but to "stop some terrorists who planned to
attack up on July 28."
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the North African affiliate of Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden's loose network of Islamist groups.
In Paris, the defence ministry confirmed "that the French military provided technical and logistical support to a Mauritanian operation designed to thwart an attack on Mauritania by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb."
Paris did not give any details on the nature of its forces' involvement, but Spanish newspapers and the website of the French daily Liberation said French special forces commandos had been involved in the assault.
Neither French nor Mauritanian officials would confirm whether the raid was an attempt to rescue the French hostage, but the French defence ministry said the targets of the raid were thought to be linked to his disappearance.
"The group of terrorists targeted by the Mauritanian operation was the one that killed a British hostage a year ago and which has refused to give 'proof of life' and enter talks
on freeing our compatriot Michel Germaneau," it said.
A Malian source who has mediated talks to release several Westerners kidnapped in the region told AFP: "The Mauritanians went to the Sahara where the French hostage was being held.
"It seems they went to find him but he could not be located."
Germaneau was kidnapped in April in Niger and French authorities believe he is being held somewhere in Mali.
British hostage Edwin Dyer, 60, was one of a group of six Western travellers kidnapped by Islamic extremists in the Sahel region bordering the Sahara desert between December and January 2009.
Malian authorities blamed his murder 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.
AQIM members have threatened to kill the French hostage. On July 11, they gave France a 15-day deadline to help secure the release of its members in the region, warning that Germaneau would be executed if Paris failed to comply.
Germaneau was kidnapped in northern Niger in April when he was working with the Enmilal aid agency to improve health services and schools.
France says it has received no direct demands from Germaneau's kidnappers but takes 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.