French hostage fate unknown as Paris refuses to bow to blackmail

French hostage fate unknown as Paris refuses to bow to blackmail
An image grab taken from a video released by Jund al-Khilifa group viao YouTube on Sept 22, 2014, allegedly shows French tourist, Herve Pierre Gourdel (centre), sitting between two armed jihadists at an undisclosed location.

PARIS - The fate of a French hostage abducted in Algeria by jihadists threatening to kill him unless France stopped bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq remained uncertain Wednesday after Paris refused to bow to any form of blackmail.

Some 1,500 Algerian soldiers were deployed in a race against time to find 55-year-old Herve Gourdel, who was kidnapped Sunday in the restive, mountainous Tizi Ouzou region in eastern Algeria by Jund al-Khilifa, a group linked to radical Islamic State (IS) militants.

In a video posted on YouTube that showed the white-haired, bespectacled Gourdel surrounded by masked men holding Kalashnikov rifles, the group had threatened to kill their hostage by Tuesday night if Paris did not stop air strikes in Iraq, where IS controls large areas.

"I am confident in the way in which Algerian authorities are behaving, and we have been in very close contact with them since the start of this affair," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said late Tuesday on French television, refusing to comment further on Gourdel's situation.

Earlier that day, President Francois Hollande had vowed not to give in to the jihadists' demands, on the sidelines of an official trip to New York.

"As grave as this situation is, we will not give in to any blackmail, any pressure, any ultimatum, no matter how odious, how despicable," he said.

"What is at stake here is our liberty, our security and sovereignty. No terrorist group can influence the will, position or freedom of France," he added.

Off the beaten-track

Gourdel, who lives in the southern French city of Nice, only arrived in Algeria on Saturday and was seized the following day while hiking with friends in the heart of the Djurdjura National Park, whose dense forests, deep gorges and picturesque lakes were once a major draw for tourists.

However, the mountains became a sanctuary for Islamists in the 1990s who later swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and security forces have been unable to dislodge them.

A passionate photographer and mountaineer, Gourdel liked going off the beaten track, though he was always careful, his friends said.

"I often bump into him in the mountains and he always goes to little-known areas of the massif, never on the major routes where there are people," said Michel Ingigliardi, his friend of 30 years in Saint-Martin-Vesubie, a village nestled deep in the French Alps outside Nice.

"Going to far-away isolated countries is consistent with his personality."

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