French defence minister to Niger after hostage killings
France's defence minister flew to Niger Monday for talks with officials and to reassure expats after two French hostages were killed during a bid to rescue them from suspected Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
French anti-terrorist police arrived in the desert nation's capital Niamey over the weekend to probe Friday's brazen kidnapping of the young Frenchmen from a restaurant in the city centre and the events that led to their deaths.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the pair were killed "in cold blood" by their captors during a Franco-Nigerien rescue attempt as they headed deep into the lawless territory around the Mali border.
"The hostage-takers, seeing they were pursued, killed the hostages in cold blood, according to the first elements (of the investigation) in my possession," he told reporters in Paris.
Their bodies were found in the desert after the operation and are being repatriated.
Defence Minister Alain Juppe, due in Niamey on Monday afternoon, has said that given the circumstances there was "little doubt" about the involvement of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and defended the bid to rescue them.
Several kidnapping 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 too 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.
The Niamey abduction appeared the boldest in the recent spate of kidnappings and the first to strike in the heart of a capital city in the region.
France's foreign ministry warned its nationals against travel to the region. An estimated 1,500 French citizens live in Niger, where French giant Areva mines uranium.
"In light of the terrorist threat in the region, no place can be considered safe," the ministry said on its website.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the killings as "a barbarous and cowardly act".
France will "never accept the diktat of terrorism and terrorists", he vowed.
The French military has said that a French surveillance aircraft backing up Niger armed forces chased the kidnappers and caught up with them in the desert on Saturday, enabling troops on the ground to attack.
At least three Nigerien security forces were killed in the rescue attempt, as well as several militants. Two French ground troops were slightly injured in the attack which also involved four French helicopters based in Mali.
One of the helicopters was damaged during the operation to stop the kidnappers, who may have been carrying out a freelance operation on behalf of AQIM.
Juppe told French TF1 television late Sunday that the government took full responsibility for the decision to try to free the hostages.
"It was a decision that had to be taken, it was grave, it was serious, we took it and we take full responsibility," said Juppe.
© 2011 AFP