"You have freed all the others, I'm the only remaining [French] hostage. I hope I won't be the eighth Frenchman to be killed in the Sahel," says Serge Lazarevic in a video posted on Monday by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Very thin, with a barely audible voice, Lazarevic addresses French President François Hollande directly.
The Elysée presidential palace confirmed the authenticity of the three minutes 13 seconds video released by al-Andalus, the terrorist group's media department, in a statement issued on Monday night: "The president was informed by intelligence services, who authenticated the video in which Serge Lazarevic appears. It is a recent proof of life that was long overdue."
The president's office said it was doing all it could to maintain dialogue in order to free Lazarevic, the last remaining hostage out of a number of French citizens kidnapped across the region in recent years. Lazarevic, 50, was abducted in northern Mali in November 2011. He was accompanying Frenchman Philippe Verdon on a business trip when they were both seized in their hotel by armed men working for AQIM.
According to their relatives, the two men were conducting a study for a future cement factory, but Verdon — who was executed in March 2013 — had a troubled past. His link with mercenaries in the early 2000s caught the attention of the media, but no ties with secret services were found to explain their presence in the region.
AQIM said it had killed Verdon in response to France's military intervention in Mali, Operation Serval, which has now morphed into Operation Barkhane, a broader anti-Islamist operation across Africa's Sahel region.
In the latest video, Lazarevic says his situation has worsened since France began to participate in the coalition against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. "I feel my life is in danger since France intervened in Iraq," he comments.
He appears sitting on the passenger's side of a pick-up truck, the camera positioned on the driver's seat. The outside of the truck is covered by a banner. The hostage seems to be discovering the text while he's reading it, and is looking a little to the side of the camera. Out of breath, he appears to be struggling to find the right intonations between sentences. He seems weakened, as compared to the last recording in which he appeared in June.
The last video featuring Lazarevic was released in June
"I am very sick, my kidneys hurt and I am suffering from very high blood pressure, asthma, from my ulcer and from my knee," Lazarevic says. He gives no indication as to when the video was shot.
The second part of the video also shows another hostage, Dutchman Sjaak Rijke, who was abducted in Mali one day after Lazarevic. Rijke says the date of the video message is September 26. However it is unclear whether the two parts were shot at the same time or in the same place.
Both men talk about their health problems and address their families. They also urge their governments to follow the example of US President Barack Obama, whose administration traded Taliban prisoners to secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier taken hostage in Afghanistan.
Currently travelling in Australia, Hollande questioned the reasons why the group had released the video. French media have posed a variety of hypotheses, including the fact that it has been posted at a time when peace talks on the Mali conflict are being held in Algiers, the Algerian capital. AQIM might also be seizing the moment to demonstrate their power while the Islamic State is getting massive media exposure.
The US government currently maintains a policy of not negotiating with terrorist groups and does not pay ransoms, but announced on Monday that it was reviewing its stance on the issue. It has regularly been claimed that the French government has negotiated ransoms for captive citizens; however it officially denies such payments.
Follow Étienne Rouillon on Twitter @rouillonetienne