The Islamic State's Egyptian affiliate claimed Wednesday it has beheaded a Croatian it abducted last month, showing a purported photo of his body in an online message.
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said authorities in Croatia could not "100 percent confirm" the death of Tomislav Salopek, a married, 30-year-old father of two who was working in Egypt. But Milanovic said "what we see looks horrific."
Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said authorities were still working to verify the authenticity of the photo. He told Al-Arabiya television late Wednesday that the "relevant authorities must first confirm the authenticity of the image that was circulated of the killing of the Croatian citizen.''
If confirmed, the beheading of Salopek — who was working in Egypt as a surveyor for GCC Ardiseis, a French oil-and-gas geology company — would be the first of a Western hostage held by the Sinai Province, an Egyptian group that has pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State.
Since last year, the Islamic State has beheaded or executed more than 3,000 people, many of them civilians in Iraq and Syria, along with journalists from throughout the world, a tourist and humanitarian workers employed in the region.
When he was first kidnapped, Salopek, kneeling next to a masked militant holding a knife, was forced to read a statement saying he would be executed within 48 hours if Egypt did not release female prisoners whose freedom the Islamic State has been demanding for two years.
The purported Salopek photo, posted on an Islamic State-affiliated Twitter account, shows a man's severed head lying on his body with a knife driven into sand next to it and the black Islamic State flag in the background.
It carried a caption saying that the beheading was carried out "due to his country's participation in the war against Islamic State, after the deadline expired" — a reference to the insurgents' demand to release the Muslim women.
Next to the picture were screenshots of Arabic language news articles with headlines saying: "Croatia confirms its support for Egypt in efforts to fight terrorism and extremism" and "Croatia affirms its continued support for the Kurdistan region."
Salopek's abduction spread anxiety among foreigners working for multinational companies in Egypt and accentuated the reach of the jihadists despite Cairo's massive military campaign against the Islamic State.
Anxiety in hometown
In Tomislav Salopek's hometown of Vrpolje in Croatia, residents refused to believe Wednesday's reports that he had been executed.
"No, no, no,'' Goran Blazanovic kept repeating as he sat in a local cafe filled with pale and quiet guests who were switching from one news portal to another on their smartphone screens, looking for signs that would give them hope that the reports were mistaken.
"Nothing is proven,'' Blazanovic insisted. "We hope that he will come back home to his wife and children.''
In front of Salopek's home, reporters were waiting in vain for some family member to come out. A family friend, Stipe Bilokapic, appeared only briefly to say everyone inside was in shock and on sedatives.
"The shock over what I saw on the Internet is too strong. Beheaded. We as believers will rise above revenge and hatred,'' said the local priest, Ivica Krizanovic, who has been organizing prayers for Salopek.
The Sinai Province is leading the Islamist insurgency in Egypt against the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the one-time Egyptian military chief who helped overthrow the elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. The militant group has killed hundreds of soldiers and police.
Some information for this report came from AP.