Young French hostages executed in Niger desert
Suspected Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Niger who kidnapped two young Frenchmen apparently executed the hostages during an attempted rescue mission by Niger and French troops, officials said Sunday.
A French husband-to-be and his childhood friend, both 25, were seized by gunmen with assault rifles at a restaurant in Niamey on Friday and found dead after the military's failed rescue operation in the desert on Saturday.
"Pending the outcome of an investigation, everything seems to indicate that the two French hostages were executed," said Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for the armed forces in the French defence ministry.
Defence Minister Alain Juppe was heading to Niamey for talks on Monday with Niger officials and French nationals there, the ministry said.
One of the dead hostage was a former aid worker who had been due to marry a Nigerien woman next week. The other was his best man, according to the Journal du Dimanche, who had just arrived in Niamey for the ceremony.
The hostage's local member of parliament named them as Antoine de Leocour, who had worked in Niger, and Vincent Delory, two friends who had grown up together on the same street in the small northern French town of Linselles.
Leocour's fiancee, named by media as Rakia Hassan Kouka, made a brief and tearful comment to French radio station Europe 1.
"I pray to God that he (Leocour) will rest in peace," she said. "It is so hard for me. I cannot express what I am feeling in my heart."
Another childhood friend of Leocour, named as Louis, told Europe 1 he arrived in Niamey on Friday night to join him, only to hear the news of the abduction.
"We came to see him married and now we're going to see him buried," he said. "I am torn between pain and hatred."
Burkhard said a French surveillance aircraft backed up Niger armed forces chased the kidnappers and caught up with them in the desert, enabling troops on the ground to attack.
A commander in the Niger forces was wounded in a first clash with the kidnappers, he said.
The aircraft then pursued the captors further and a second fight took place in which "several" of the kidnappers were killed and two French ground troops slightly injured, Burkhard said.
A statement from defence chief Juppe on Saturday said: "At the end of the operation, the lifeless bodies of the two hostages were discovered."
The MP for Linselles, Christian Vanneste, said: "Vincent's father... didn't want his son to go there. His son had no reason to go, except for his friend's marriage."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday condemned the killings as "a barbarous and cowardly act."
"Far from weakening our determination, this odious act reinforces our commitment to fight terrorist barbarism without respite," he said in a statement.
A military source in Mali said the kidnapping may have been carried out on behalf of militants linked to the Al-Qaeda network in the Sahel desert region spanning Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria.
But Niger government spokesman Laouali Dan Dah said it was too soon to say if the kidnappers were linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has claimed other abductions prowls the zone.
The group in July killed a 78-year-old French hostage who was kidnapped in Niger. It is currently believed to be holding five French hostages, a Togolese and a Madagascan in Mali after they too were seized in Niger.
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.
"If AQMI is really behind this, even if it was outsourced to local bandits, the aim is to say to Paris: Your nationals are not safe anywhere," said Dominique Thomas, an expert on Islamic extremism at French social studies school EHESS.
France's foreign ministry warned its nationals against travel to the Sahel.
"In light of the terrorist threat in the region, no place can be considered safe," the ministry said on its website.
© 2011 AFP