LONDON: Isil loyalists yesterday (Wednesday) appeared to have murdered their first Western hostage in Egypt, in a chilling development in a country embroiled in an Islamist insurgency.
Croat Tomislav Salopek, 31, was kidnapped in the early hours of July 22 as he left Cairo in his car.
He reappeared last week in a video released by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant extremist group.
Yesterday, a photograph showing what appeared to be the father of two's body was circulating on the social media accounts of Isil loyalists. The image could not immediately be verified. The Isil-affiliated group known as Sinai Province had set a 48-hour deadline a week ago for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, to release female Muslim prisoners, warning that they would kill Mr Salopek if their demands were not met.
Isil sympathisers shared the macabre countdown on social media as the deadline expired. Several accounts carried images of knives alongside the message: "Croatia participated in the war with the Islamic State."
Croatia has played a minor role in the military effort to defeat the extremist group, sending weapons to Kurdish forces in Iraq. Zoran Milanovic, the Croatian prime minister, said yesterday that Mr Salopek's murder could not be confirmed with certainty.
Mr Salopek was an employee of the French geophysical services company CGG. An early official account of the kidnapping said that militants had pulled the Croat's Egyptian driver out of the vehicle before hijacking the car. It was found a short distance away, with Mr Salopek's belongings still inside.
Mokhtar Awad, an expert on Egyptian jihadist groups at the Centre for American Progress, said the Sinai Province militants had used the kidnapping to attract local support.
Although Sinai Province has killed hundreds of security personnel across the restive Sinai peninsula, it has failed to launch any attacks on the Egyptian mainland since pledging allegiance to Isil last year.
The reference to Egypt's female prisoners, some of whom have faced sexual violence in custody, was intended to strike a chord with disaffected young Islamists, Mr Awad said.
Described as easy-going and football-mad, Mr Salopek leaves behind two young children. A neighbour from his hometown of Vrpolje said Mr Salopek's seven-year-old daughter had been crossing out the days until his return on a calendar.
"On Friday night she was waiting for her father to return so the family could go to the coast," said Stipe Bjelokapic, a family friend.
Mr Salopek had worked on large motorway projects in his homeland before the economy slumped in 2009 and construction projects dried up. His murder will send a chill through the community of Western oil and gas workers who work in Cairo.
In March, Egypt and international companies announced plans for billions of dollars' worth of energy investments at a conference intended to kick-start the economy. But an upsurge in militant attacks has prompted Western business owners and diplomatic officials to express disquiet at security conditions in the country.
Mr Sisi has promised to restore security and economic prosperity to Egypt after four years of political turmoil.