Al-Qaeda offshoot ordered kidnapping of Frenchmen: sources

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A local leader of an Al-Qaeda offshoot ordered the kidnapping of two French hostages in Niger who were found killed in the desert, sources said on Tuesday, as Paris defended its role in a botched rescue bid.

The bodies of childhood friends Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory, both aged 25, were being flown out of Niamey and were due to arrive in Paris at around 6 am on Wednesday morning.

French Defence Minister Alain Juppe, who earlier denied any French "blunder", said there were "no grey areas in the sequence of events" that ended with the discovery of the men's bodies.

Juppe, speaking in Ndjamena, said that one of the victims had been "shot in the head by a bullet which was not a stray...."

"We have every reason to think that the hostages were executed by their kidnappers," he said.

A Malian mediator who has negotiated earlier hostage releases with a local leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Mokhtar Belmokhtar meanwhile implicated him in the kidnappings.

"Mokhtar Belmokhtar was behind the kidnapping of the hostages. It was him. His people told us it was him. There is no doubt about that," said the mediator.

"Yes, Belmokhtar is the leader of the kidnapping. His men were among the kidnappers," added a source from Niger who was also been involved in kidnapping negotiations.

At least two suspected Al-Qaeda-linked militants were captured after the failed raid in which four of the alleged kidnappers died, officials said.

The alleged members of AQIM were being questioned in Niamey, a Niger security source said, from where the two young Frenchmen were abducted on Friday.

"At least two alleged AQIM fighters were captured and brought back safe and sound to Niamey where they are being interrogated," the source said.

Two French lawmakers briefed by Prime Minister Francois Fillon said they had been told that "four terrorists" were killed, and two others wounded, captured and brought back to Niamey. Juppe on Tuesday confirmed the death of four militants, with two injured.

Three Niger security forces were killed and four seriously wounded in clashes with the militants who snatched the two men from a Niamey restaurant, according to Niger officials.

A medical source in Niamey who saw the bodies of the two young men said that they "had been tied up, their hands behind their backs, and they had black marks on their bodies. It was a horrific way to die."

A source close to the Niger presidency told AFP that "the bodies were charred." A full autopsy is to be carried out in France.

French helicopter-borne commandos opened fire on the kidnappers before landing, a Malian security source told AFP, with several "burnt vehicles" discovered at the scene of the final assault near the Malian town of Tabankor.

A Malian breeder, returning from the desert area where the clash took place, said he saw burnt vehicles and "the remains of people who had been burned, human pieces."

The bodies of the Frenchmen and the four dead alleged militants were flown back to the Niger capital aboard French military helicopters, a Niamey airport source said.

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, where the final assault on the kidnappers took place after they were chased across the border by Niger forces, have both said that AQIM was behind the brazen abduction.

Fillon has said that Niger forces chased the kidnappers as far as the border, then asked the French to help when they crossed into Mali.

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

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