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By Laurent Prieur
NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's wing in north Africa said it had beheaded a French hostage in retaliation for France's intervention in Mali, Mauritania's ANI news agency reported on Tuesday, citing a spokesman for the group.
In what ANI reported was a telephone call to the agency, which has close links to Islamist militants, the commander said Philippe Verdon had been beheaded on March 10 "in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali", ANI reported.
The death, if proved true, would be a worrying development for Paris, which still has some 14 hostages held in West Africa, including seven in the Sahel by AQIM and its affiliates.
French President Francois Hollande in part justified military action in Mali to prevent the north from being used as a launch pad for terror attacks in Africa and in the West.
Verdon, a French geologist, was captured in the northern Mali town of Hombori in November 2011. A French foreign ministry spokesman said he had no information on the report.
One of AQIM's leaders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had pledged revenge after France launched a campaign in January to dislodge the group and other Islamist militants who had hijacked a Tuareg rebellion in the Sahel nation and seized the northern half of the country.
After driving them from the main cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in a swift, nine-week assault, some 1,600 French and Chadian troops began searching for Islamist rebels in their pocket hideouts in the mountainous region of northern Mali.
The AQIM spokesman, who identified himself only as Qayrawani, described Verdon as a French spy, adding that Hollande "bore the responsibility for the remaining hostages".
ANI's director Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Aboulmaaly told Reuters he knew Qayrawani, an AQIM commander who according to him, is of Tuareg origin, had called him from Mali.
When asked by the agency whether Belmokhtar had been killed, he neither denied nor confirmed it. There have been conflicting reports on whether Belmokhtar was killed in the French military campaign against the rebels.
NO MORE RANSOMS
The possible death of Belmokhtar and another AQIM leader Abou Zeid has raised questions about the fate of eight French hostages held by al Qaeda in the Sahel.
The families of four French hostages seized in Niger in September 2010 appealed to Paris earlier this month to open negotiations with AQIM.
Belmokhtar sent a statement on January 20 to ANI after carrying out the In Amenas hostage taking in Algeria threatening to strike at the interests of all those involved in the Mali intervention.
AQIM has previously threatened to kill the hostages if France intervened militarily in Mali and has demanded a 90 million euro ($120.5 million) ransom for their release.
France's Le Monde newspaper this week reported that Paris had changed its policy with regard paying ransoms for hostages.
Citing a former hostage whose husband is still being held by AQIM, the paper said that Hollande had told them in January "it would be unthinkable to give money to groups we are at war with."
A rescue operation ordered by Hollande to free a French secret agent held hostage in Somalia since mid-2009 ended in failure in January after he was killed along with two commandos trying to rescue from al Qaeda-allied Somali militant group al Shabaab.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Michael Roddy and Jackie Frank)