'Al-Qaeda militants' seized after deadly Niger kidnap
At least two suspected Al-Qaeda-linked militants were captured after a failed raid to free two French hostages who were later found killed in the desert, officials said Tuesday.
The alleged members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are being questioned in Niamey, a Niger security source said, from where the two young Frenchmen were snatched Friday and later found bound and killed in the desert.
"At least two alleged AQIM fighters were captured and brought back safe and sound to Niamey where they are being interrogated," the source said, without elaborating on the circumstances of their arrest.
Two French lawmakers briefed by Prime Minister Francois Fillon said they had been told that "four terrorists" were killed, and two others wounded, captured and brought back to Niamey.
Three Niger security forces were killed and four seriously wounded in clashes with the militants who snatched the French childhood friends from a Niamey restaurant, according to Niger officials.
The bodies of Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory, both aged 25, are to be flown out of Niamey later in the day to arrive in Paris Wednesday morning, a French diplomatic source said.
A medical source in Niamey who saw their bodies said that they "had been tied up, their hands behind their backs, and they had black marks on their bodies. It was a horrific way to die."
A full autopsy is to be carried out in France, amid unconfirmed reports that the bodies had been burnt.
Fillon said Monday that the two were killed "in cold blood" by their captors as Niger and French troops tracked them through the desert on the Mali-Niger border in a bid to free them.
He said he believed AQIM was behind the kidnapping. No one has yet claimed responsibility.
A security source in Mali where the kidnappers were likely captured said that French anti-terrorist police as well as a coroner and a magistrate were in Niamey.
"Some of them have already questioned the kidnappers. There will be more questioning today," the Malian source said.
The bodies of the Frenchmen and the four dead alleged militants were flown back to the Niger capital aboard French military helicopters, a Niamey airport source said.
De Leocour was a former aid worker who had been due to marry a Niger woman next week, and Delory his best man who had arrived in Niamey for the wedding hours before they were snatched.
France and Mali, where the final assault on the kidnappers took place after they were chased across the border by Niger forces, have both said that AQIM was behind the brazen abduction.
Fillon has said that Niger forces chased the kidnappers as far as the border, then asked the French to help when they crossed into Mali. With Bamako's permission French forces launched an assault.
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 its militants were killed in a joint French-Mauritanian rescue bid.
France's foreign ministry has warned its nationals against travel to the entire region where "no place can be considered safe."
The French military has said that a French surveillance aircraft backed up Niger's armed forces as they chased the kidnappers across the desert. Fillon has intimated that some of the kidnappers had been captured.
Two French ground troops were slightly injured in the final attack which also involved four French helicopters based in Mali.
© 2011 AFP