France warns of Sahel threat after hostages killed

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Friends and officials on Sunday mourned two young Frenchmen believed to have been executed by suspected Al-Qaeda-linked captors in Niger, with France warning of a rising militant threat in the region.

The French foreign ministry warned French nationals against travel to the Sahel region after the two, both 25, were seized at gunpoint from a restaurant in Niamey on Friday and died during a France-Niger rescue bid in the desert.

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 the husband-to-be, 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."

Leocour was a former aid worker who had been due to marry next week. Delory had just arrived in Niamey to act as witness at the ceremony when the two were snatched late Friday.

Officials said French and Nigerien forces chased and fought with the kidnappers but the hostages were found dead afterwards. French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said Sunday they appeared to have been "executed" by their captors.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday condemned the killings as "a barbarous and cowardly act."

A military source in Mali said the kidnapping may have been carried out on behalf of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), which has claimed other abductions in the Sahel desert region spanning Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria.

"In light of the terrorist threat in the region, no place can be considered safe," the foreign ministry said on its website, urging French nationals to exercise "the greatest vigilance."

The hostage takings along with an explosion last week at the French embassy in Bamako, Mali, which caused no deaths, "show there is a particularly high level of terrorist threat in the Sahel," the ministry added.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the two men were "assassinated in a cowardly way." He said he would brief members of parliament Monday on security measures being taken to protect French nationals in the region.

The government estimates there are about 1,500 French nationals in Niger, 4,330 in Mali and 2,115 in Mauritania, most of them in the capitals.

"Antoine knew Africa very well. I don't think he considered himself to be in danger in the capital," said the local MP, Christian Vanneste, who met with the families of the victims.

"Vincent's father... didn't want his son to go there. His son had no reason to go, except for his friend's marriage."

Another local official who knew the family, Marie-Agnes Dhulu, said Leocour had been working in Africa for two years, most recently the Central African Republic, and had come to Niger to marry.

"He had been in Africa for two years," she said. "He felt good there."

© 2011 AFP

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