French minister to Niger after 'Al-Qaeda killed hostages'
France's defence minister flew to Niger Monday after two Frenchmen snatched at gunpoint from a Niamey restaurant in a kidnap blamed on Al-Qaeda were killed during a failed rescue bid.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the pair were killed "in cold blood" by their captors during a French rescue attempt after they were chased up to the Mali border by Niger forces on Saturday.
A Malian security source told AFP that proof of the involvement of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had been found at the site where French special forces backed by helicopters attacked the kidnappers.
"There is irrefutable proof condemning the terrorists. It is AQIM who did it," the source said.
AQIM documents had been found at the scene of the strike, as well as an itinerary and two satellite phones, the source added.
Speaking in Paris, Fillon said: "The hostage-takers, seeing they were pursued, killed the hostages in cold blood, according to the first elements in my possession."
He said that Niger forces had chased the kidnappers as far as the border, then asked the French for aid when they crossed into Mali. With Bamako's permission French forces launched an assault.
Anti-terrorist police arrived in Niamey at the weekend, with Fillon vowing that "the investigation will of course go deeper."
The bodies of childhood friends Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory, both aged 25, were found in the desert after the operation.
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.
Defence Minister Alain Juppe arrived in Niamey and paid his respects to their remains in a private hospital before going in to talks with Niger junta head General Salou Dijbo, an AFP correspondent reported.
Juppe was also to reassure France's estimated 1,500 expats living in Niger, where French giant Areva mines uranium.
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 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 entire region.
"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" and said he would visit the bereaved families in the small northern French town of Linselles, near Lille.
France will "never accept the diktat of terrorism and terrorists", he vowed.
The French military has said that a French surveillance aircraft backed up Niger's armed forces as they chased the kidnappers across the desert.
At least three Niger troops were killed in clashes as well as several militants, while Fillon intimated that some of the kidnappers had also been captured.
Two French ground troops were slightly injured in the final 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