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An estimated three dozen French commandos took part in a Mauritanian raid deep into the Sahara Desert last Thursday, killing six members of al Qaeda’s local wing but failing to rescue 78-year-old air worker Michel Germaneau.

Mr. Germaneau has now been executed — beheaded by his captors, according to local officials — and Mr. Sarkozy has vowed that France will fight back, raising the stakes in the low-level guerrilla conflict in the region’s arid wastes.

France is the former colonial ruler of most of the Sahel, a band of scrub and desert along the southern rim of the Sahara between Mauritania and Chad, and retains much influence with regional leaders.

But it has a light military footprint on the ground, a handful of military advisers and trainers working with local armies, and the transnational nature of the al Qaeda threat will complicate any attempt to corner the militants.

“We can’t intervene, but we can just support another country,” said a military officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity while commanders examine options. “I don’t foresee us sending 2,000 troops to the region.”

From wire dispatches and staff reports