* President says hostage “condemned to certain death”
* Analysts say group will target French interests
* Mali source says hostage alive before raid
(Adds Kouchner comment in Mauritania paragraphs 8-9)
By Bate Felix
PARIS, July 26 (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed on Monday to punish al Qaeda’s north African wing for killing a 78-year-old French hostage after a commando raid in Mali failed to free him.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said on Sunday it had killed Michel Germaneau in response to the raid against the group last week, according to a recording aired on Al Jazeera.
French commandos, acting with Mauritanian troops, had tried to free Germaneau, a retired engineer kidnapped on April 20, but had not found him when they raided a desert camp in Mali.
“Convinced that he was condemned to a certain death, it was our duty to try to save him from his captors. Unfortunately Michel Germaneau was not there,” Sarkozy said on television.
“Far from weakening our determination, his death must reinforce it.”
He urged French citizens to avoid travel to the Sahel region and vowed: “This crime will not go unpunished.”
France said it intervened after AQIM threatened to kill Germaneau at the end of July unless Paris arranged a prisoner swap.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner arrived in Mauritania on Monday on the first leg of a trip to discuss security measures for French citizens in the region.
Kouchner said they faced some difficult months ahead, but Mauritania would make progress. “For Michel (Germaneau) we tried but we couldn’t find the group that held him, we couldn’t propose anything. It was ... as if he was condemned.”
A Mali defence ministry source said Mali did not understand why France had launched the operation without consulting it.
“We think that he was alive ahead of the military intervention. Many of our sources told us so. Al Qaeda is very well organised — they have medicines, doctors.”
Spain, two of whose nationals are held hostage by another al Qaeda faction in the region, condemned the killing of Germaneau and said it would continue efforts to free its citizens.
Analysts said the group would use the raid to attack French targets in the region, though probably not on French soil.
“I think they (Qaeda) will try and take further revenge against French interests,” said Camille Tawil, an expert on north African militant groups.
“They don’t have the capability to do something in France. If they had it, they would not have hesitated to act. They would be more likely to act against French interests in Africa.”
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said there was a terrorist threat, but the alert level has not been raised.
In France, the failed raid seemed unlikely to dent Sarkozy’s standing, although the Socialist mayor of Germaneau’s home town, Olivier Thomas, questioned the use of force, saying the French tradition was to negotiate hostages’ freedom.
Paris negotiated the release of hostage Pierre Camatte in February after Mali agreed to free four Islamist prisoners.
“We are concerned by France’s attitude. We have signed agreements on hot pursuit with Mauritania,” the Malian defence source said. “But in this case, this was not a case of pursuit. This was a real military operation involving ground and air troops. This was not pursuit, but an act of war.”
Islamists in the Sahara have so far not staged any large-scale attacks, and experts say they have concentrated largely on collecting revenues from ransom payments and the smuggling of goods, including cocaine.
But Western nations led by France and the United States, fearing these groups could become too powerful in vast deserts where governments have little sway, have stepped up involvement in the region and are trying to improve coordination.
Noman Benotman, a Libyan analyst based in Britain who is a former associate of Osama bin Laden, said AQIM would do its utmost to inflict further punishment on France.
“They will want to send a message of being tough, of spreading fear,” Banotman said.
The same AQIM wing killed British captive Edwin Dyer last year after Britain refused to give in to its demands. (Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, William Maclean in London, Sarah Morris in Madrid and Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; editing by John Irish, Paul Taylor and Tim Pearce)