Niger soldiers 'killed by French gunfire': official
A Niger government official told AFP in Mali Thursday that Niger soldiers found dead after an assault against the kidnappers of two French hostages were "victims of French gunfire".
The highly placed official, speaking on condition of anonymity, contested claims by the French defence ministry that the Niger soldiers were fighting against French forces.
"The Niger soldiers were pursuing Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI)," he said. AQMI on Thursday claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the two 25-year-old Frenchmen, who were killed in a failed rescue bid on Saturday.
"We had a military vehicle damaged at the site where the French military carried out the assault. Our men who died on the scene were victims of French gunfire," said the official, adding there was "no doubt" on the subject.
Three Niger soldiers were killed, he said.
"I am not saying the French soldiers did it on purpose, but the (Niger) soldiers whose bodies the French brought to Niamey died by French fire," he said.
"We don't want controversy, but like everyone we want brought to light exactly what happened," said the government official.
He raised the hypothesis that the gendarmes at the scene of the assault may have "been taken hostage by AQMI."
The two Frenchmen were abducted from a restaurant in Niger's capital Niamey on January 7. The following day they were found dead after an attack led by French commandos against the kidnappers.
According to Malian security sources, combat helicopters fired on the kidnappers' convoy. Among the charred vehicles found at the scene was notably one belonging to the Niger gendarmerie, witnesses said.
A spokesman for the French defence ministry said Thursday: "Four bodies, including two wearing the uniform of the Niger military, as well as two injured also wearing this uniform" were handed over to Niger authorities after the assault.
"Those wearing the uniform of the Niger gendarmerie did not have their hands bound, were carrying weapons" and "fought and participated in the action against our forces."
"It is for Niger to give answers" on these people, the ministry said.
© 2011 AFP