Qaeda 'claims kidnap of Frenchmen' later killed
Al-Qaeda's North Africa branch claimed Thursday they kidnapped two Frenchmen in Niger, saying they were later killed in clashes between militants and French forces, according to a message Al-Jazeera aired.
"A group of mujahedeen (holy warriors) stormed on January 7 into the fortified diplomatic quarter in Niamey and succeeded in kidnapping two Frenchmen," said the audio message attributed to a spokesman for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The claim appeared to dispute an official French statement that the kidnappers executed the two hostages.
The AQIM spokesman accused the French government of being "reckless" after the kidnappers had warned the French and Niger sides against pursuing them.
"(French President Nicholas) Sarkozy and his reckless government did not heed earlier lessons of failure and have repeated the same stupidity," he said.
"Two heroic clashes between the mujahedeen and the French and Niger forces took place and resulted in a catastrophic failure to free the two hostages.
"The confrontation resulted in the death of the two hostages, as well as two members of the French special forces, and wounding of others, while 25 Niger troops were either killed or wounded," he added, referring to the pursuit by French and Niger security forces across the desert and into neighbouring Mali.
"A French helicopter was disabled," the AQIM spokesman added.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the kidnappers had killed their hostages, Vincent Delory and Antoine De Leocour, both 25, in cold blood as they were being chased.
French police sources said Wednesday an autopsy found one of the hostages has been shot at point blank range in the face, which would support the government's claim he may have been executed.
But the second hostage's burns suggest he may have died when the vehicle in which he was travelling went up in flames near the Niger-Mali border.
Malian security sources said French combat helicopters fired on the vehicles of the kidnappers in northern Mali, where the charred wreckage was found.
The source said French commandos opened fire on the vehicles from the air before landing. Several burnt vehicles were discovered at the scene of the assault against the kidnappers which took place on Saturday, he said.
Separately on Thursday, a Niger government official told AFP in Mali that the Niger soldiers found dead after the assault against the kidnappers were "victims of French gunfire."
"The Niger police were pursuing the people from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb... Our men who died on the scene, on Malian territory, were victims of gunfire from the French military," said the highly placed official.
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 have both said AQIM was behind the brazen abduction.
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.
© 2011 AFP