'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 snatched in Niger and later found killed across the border in Mali, 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 abducted 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.
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 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 source close to the Niger presidency told AFP that "the bodies were charred." A full autopsy is to be carried out in France.
French helicopter-borne commandos opened fire on the kidnappers before landing, a Malian security source told AFP, with several "burnt vehicles" discovered at the scene of the final assault near the Malian town of Tabankor.
Among the charred vehicles found at the scene, "there was also a Niger police vehicle that the Nigerians came to fetch" on Sunday, said an administrative source in northern Mali.
A Malian breeder, returning from the desert area where the clash took place, said he saw burnt vehicles and "the remains of people who had been burned, human pieces."
In Niamey on Monday, French Defence Minister Alain Juppe denied any French "blunder".
Among the dead were "terrorists and people wearing the uniform of the Niger police," said Juppe, adding an enquiry had been established to discover "the reason for their presence inside the vehicles which we stopped."
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.
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."
Fillon insisted that France, which has a reputation for trying to negotiate with or to buy off kidnappers, had not changed its policy.
"We have not changed strategy, and France will not be trapped in a binary logic. On every hostage-taking we study the possibility of mounting a rescue operation," Fillon told the National Assembly.
© 2011 AFP