Al Qaeda claims kidnap of French hostages in Niger
Al-Qaeda said Thursday it was behind the kidnapping of two Frenchmen in Niger, as the already murky circumstances of the battle in the Sahara that led to their deaths became still less clear.
"A group of mujahedeen (holy warriors) stormed on January 7 into the fortified diplomatic quarter in Niamey and succeeded in kidnapping two Frenchmen," said an audio message attributed to Al-Qaeda's North Africa wing.
"Two heroic clashes between the mujahedeen and the French and Niger forces took place and resulted in a catastrophic failure to free the two hostages," said the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) message, aired on Al-Jazeera.
AQIM said the hostages were killed in the clashes on Saturday between the kidnappers and the French and Niger security forces who had pursued them across the desert and into neighbouring Mali.
The Al-Qaeda claim further complicated accounts of the murky circumstances of the desert shoot-out, after which French special forces found the bodies of Vincent Delory and Antoine De Leocour, both 25.
It appeared to dispute the claim by French Prime Minister Francois Fillon that the kidnappers had executed the hostages in cold blood.
A French defence ministry spokesman on Thursday repeated that it appeared that the hostages were executed as one had been shot in the head and the body of the second man showed several bullet wounds.
French police sources said an autopsy carried out after the bodies were brought back to France had found one of the hostages was shot at point blank range in the face while the other appeared to have burned.
Malian security sources said French combat helicopters fired on the vehicles of the kidnappers in northern Mali, where charred wreckage was found.
France and Niamey have also given contradictory versions about a group of men in Niger police uniforms, two of whom were found dead at the scene of the shoot-out and two more of whom seem to have been captured.
France says they had attacked its troops but Niger says they were loyal soldiers who were the "victims of French gunfire."
"The people in the Niger gendarmerie uniforms did not have their hands tied, and were carrying weapons. They participated in the action against our forces," said French defence ministry spokesman Laurent Teisseire.
In addition to the two dead hostages, the French commandos found the bodies of four more people after they ambushed the gang as it crossed the border into Mali, two of which were in Niger uniform.
Two wounded combattants in the same uniform were also found, and were handed over to Bamako authorities, he said.
The spokesman would not be drawn on whether France believes the men to have been Niger personnel working with the hostage-takers, or whether they were simply Al-Qaeda operatives in disguise.
But a Niger government official told AFP in Mali that the Niger soldiers found dead were "victims of French gunfire."
Three Niger soldiers were killed, the highly placed official said on condition of anonymity.
"I am not saying the French soldiers did it on purpose, but the soldiers whose bodies the French brought to Niamey died by French fire," he said.
French officials also previously said they handed two wounded Al-Qaeda suspects to Niger authorities, but Niger denies this. It was not clear if these two suspects were in fact the wounded men in uniform.
Several kidnappings of foreigners in the arid Sahel region spanning Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria have been carried out by or on behalf of AQIM.
The group is holding five French citizens, a Togolese and a Madagascan, reportedly in northern Mali, after they were seized from Niger's uranium mining town of Arlit in September.
AQIM in July killed a 78-year-old French hostage who was kidnapped in Niger after six of militants were killed in a joint French-Mauritanian rescue bid.
© 2011 AFP