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ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algerian police and soldiers combed the imposing Djura Djura mountains on Tuesday searching for a kidnapped Frenchman that a security official said had been snatched by a former al-Qaida commander.
Residents described roads choked with military trucks and helicopters clattering overhead as security forces fanned out through the rugged region that has long been a hotbed for extremist groups.
In a video posted Monday, the group calling itself the Jund al-Khilafah said it would kill Herve Gourdel in 24 hours unless France ended its participation in airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq.
Speaking to reporters at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, French President Francois Hollande said he had "plenty of confidence" in Algerian security forces that "everything will be done so that we can recover our compatriot."
He said France was acting against terrorism in the face of threats.
"As grave as the situation is, we will give in to no blackmail, no pressure, no ultimatum," he said. "No terrorist group can in any way influence France's position, will, and freedom."
"I repeat it here ... we will continue to provide our support to the Iraqi authorities," said Hollande. That would include weapons deliveries to those fighting the Islamic State group and continued air support for Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga forces, he said.
French forces on Friday joined the U.S. in carrying out airstrikes against extremists who have overrun large areas of Syria and Iraq.
An Algerian security official said the new group had split away from al-Qaida's North Africa branch just two weeks ago and declared allegiance to the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq — a rival of al-Qaida.
The new Algerian group is led by 36-year-old Abdelmalek Gouri, also known as Khaled Abu Slimane, a veteran al-Qaida commander from the central region behind a series of bloody attacks on Algerian soldiers, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Herve Gourdel, a mountaineering guide from Nice, was taken Sunday night while driving through the Djura Djura mountains in Algeria's rugged Kabylie region, which remains one of the last active areas of operation for al-Qaida in Algeria.
He was taken with four Algerian companions who were later released.
At least 14 soldiers were killed in April close to where Gourdel was kidnapped when they were ambushed by militants in an operation led by Gouri, according to the official.
Residents told The Associated Press that security has been deteriorating in the area for the last few days. Majid Benhamich, a local guard from the village of Akbil, said he was constantly being called up to help the army in its operations.
"There are frequent sightings of terrorists in the mountains and I hear there are some of foreign nationalities," he said, describing the area as still dangerous.
Laifa Bessadi, a resident of Ait Allaoua village just 6 miles (10 kilometers) from where Gourdel was kidnapped, said the roads are filled with military trucks and there are helicopters in the sky. Everyone in his village has been ordered to stay at home.
"Last night, we heard gunshots in the night and this morning we saw helicopters firing but we don't know what at," he said.
Algeria has been fighting Islamic extremists since the 1990s and in recent years they had been largely confined to a few mountainous areas, such as the Kabylie region, where they have concentrated on attacking soldiers and police while leaving civilians alone.
While the al-Qaida's branch in the Sahara has made millions off kidnapping foreign hostages, it has rarely killed them as the Islamic State group has now done with the two Americans and Briton it held.
Djallil Lounnas, an expert on Islamic movements in North Africa said the emergence of a group claiming loyalty to the Islamic State, a rival of al-Qaida, suggests that Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of the North Africa branch is losing control of his men.
He said more attacks are to be expected as the new group tries to make a name for itself.
The U.S. embassy in Algiers renewed its travel warning for Algeria Tuesday, urging Americans traveling there to "exercise vigilance" in their movements.
Associated Press reporter Angela Charlton contributed to this report from Paris.
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