SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The alleged beheading of a Croatian hostage in Egypt took a sinister new turn Thursday with the revelation that a criminal gang kidnapped him, then demanded a ransom from his employer before turning him over to the Islamic State group.
The French geoscience company that the 30-year-old oil and gas surveyor worked for said it tried in vain to contact his abductors after receiving their emailed demand for cash.
The kidnapping and apparent beheading of Tomislav Salopek, who was snatched in broad daylight on the outskirts of Cairo, is the first of its kind involving a foreigner in Egypt. It is sure to deal a blow to the government’s efforts to project stability and buttress an economic turnaround following years of unrest in the wake of Egypt’s Arab Spring.
It will also likely rattle companies with expatriate workers in Egypt and cast a cloud over hopes of boosting international investment in the country.
Christophe Barnini, the chief spokesman for Salopek’s employer, CGG Ardiseis, said the company received an email with a ransom demand eight days after his July 22 kidnapping, but it included no contact number and multiple responses to the address it came from went unanswered. The company’s emails asked for proof of life and included a telephone number for the kidnappers to contact, Barnini said, adding that CGG was acting on directives from Croatian and Egyptian authorities.
“At no moment did we enter negotiations with the kidnappers about a ransom,” Barnini said. He refused to say how much money the kidnappers were demanding.
On Aug. 5, a video emerged showing Salopek, shackled and clad in a beige jumpsuit, as a hostage of the Islamic State group’s Egyptian affiliate, the Sinai Province of the Islamic State.
At that point, his captors did not demand money but set a 48-hour deadline for the release of “Muslim women” from Egyptian jails — a reference to the hundreds of female Islamist prisoners detained in a sweeping government crackdown following the 2013 ouster of the country’s Islamist president.
“The conclusion was that … we were dealing with two different organizations,” Croatia’s Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic told reporters Thursday, speaking in the Croatian coastal town of Rijeka. “One that kidnapped him and the other that identified itself as the Islamic State.”
On Wednesday, a still photo circulated by IS supporters on social media appeared to show Salopek’s beheaded body, with a knife and the black flag used by the extremist group planted in the sand.
A caption in Arabic said Salopek was killed “for his country’s participation in the war against the Islamic State,” and contained an inset showing Egyptian newspaper reports declaring Croatia’s support for Egypt’s war against terrorism and noting Croatia’s backing of the Kurds, who have been battling the IS group in Syria and Iraq.
On Thursday, the Islamic State group’s radio station announced that its Egyptian affiliate had killed Salopek, the first word from the extremist group.
Authorities still have not confirmed the authenticity of the claim and are continuing the search for Salopek in isolated areas of Egypt, including the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, where Egypt’s Islamic State affiliate is based, and the vast Western Desert, which is a gateway to volatile and lawless Libya, home to its own Islamic State branch.
Pusic said she has met with representatives of about 80 other Croatian citizens working in Egypt and the Croatian government is considering stronger security measures for them, including the protection of the Egyptian army.
Islamic State militants in the Middle East and North Africa have taken a number of civilians hostage in recent years. Some European hostages have been released, reportedly in exchange for ransom, while citizens of the United States and Britain, which refuse to pay ransoms, have been killed. IS has released a number of graphic videos showing the beheading of hostages.
France insists it pays no ransoms and does not exchange prisoners, although French President Francois Hollande has acknowledged that other countries have done so, “to help us.”
Last week, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said no ransom was paid to secure the release of a French woman held in captivity for five months in Yemen. Last December, the Malian government said it exchanged four prisoners to secure the release of a French hostage who had been held for three years by al-Qaida’s North African branch.
In its radio broadcast, the Islamic State group’s radio station, Al-Bayan, said that “soldiers of the Caliphate” killed Salopek, “whose country is participating in the war against the Islamic State.”
It said the killing came after a deadline passed for “the renegade Egyptian government” to meet his captors’ demands to free jailed women.