BAMAKO (Reuters) - Suspected al Qaeda-linked militants in northern Mali have decapitated a Tuareg hostage seized last week for purportedly acting as an informer for French forces in the region, a Malian security source said on Wednesday.
Residents of the town of Zouera, some 80 km (50 miles) north of Timbuktu, said the man's head had been found early on Tuesday sitting on the table of a stall before the start of the weekly market. The man's decapitated body was left under a tree in the center of town, residents said.
Four other Tuareg men, taken with him last week, had been released, residents said.
A group of armed men who left the body shouted a warning to the townsfolk that anyone who emulated him -- an apparent reference to his alleged work with French forces -- would meet the same fate, residents said.
"My nephew was decapitated and put on display like a (butchered) sheep in the market," Hamani Ag El Ansari, the dead man's uncle, told Reuters by telephone.
Witnesses last week said that a group of heavily armed men on pickup trucks had kidnapped the Tuaregs, including an elder of the Kel Ansar tribe.
The Malian security source, who asked not to be named, said the kidnappers were believed to be members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the north African branch of the armed Islamist movement.
The kidnapped Tuaregs were suspected of acting as intelligence agents for some 3,000 French forces as they mount a counter-terrorist operation in the Sahel region including Mali and neighboring countries.
France deployed ground and air forces to Mali last year in a five-month offensive to dislodge a coalition of Islamist groups allied to al Qaeda that had seized control of the northern two-thirds of the West African country.
Small groups of Islamist forces remain in the vast desert zone and their attacks on the U.N. peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) have increased in recent weeks, stirring concern among foreign diplomats. Ten Chadian peacekeepers have been killed in Mali this month, prompting the government in N'Djamena to accuse the United Nations of neglecting to support its contingent.
"Apart from Timbuktu and Gao, the Malian government is not present in the north. If you look at figures and the number of dead, the United Nations is paying a high toll," said one foreign diplomat. "People are very concerned, especially if the Chadians turn around and say they have had enough."
Reporting by Cheik Diarra; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky