Frenchmen killed in Niger desert after restaurant kidnapping

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Two Frenchmen snatched at gunpoint from a restaurant in central Niamey, one of whom was to marry in a week, have been killed during a desert rescue operation by the Niger military, officials said.

"The two Frenchmen kidnapped in Niamey have been found killed. They were killed on Niger territory," a regional security source told AFP.

French Defence Minister Alainn Juppe confirmed the deaths "during a military operation by Niger's national guard near the Malian border," a statement said.

One of the men was an aid worker due to marry a local woman and the other a friend who had just arrived in Niamey to attend the ceremony, said the manager of the restaurant from where they were abducted late Friday.

The deaths were announced after Niger security forces said that they had located the men and their kidnappers in the desert between Niamey and the Mali border and exchanged fire, but held off for fear of wounding the hostages.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said earlier the leader of the military had been wounded in the clash with the kidnappers but that it "seemed" the operation "pursuing the terrorists as they head for Mali" was still under way.

Niger government spokesman Laouali Dan Dah said earlier that Niger troops had intercepted the kidnappers before dawn on Saturday just north of Ouallam, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Mali border.

"The security and defence forces did not want to open fire in a major way for fear of wounding the hostages and putting their lives in danger, which is why the kidnappers slipped through the net."

Sarkozy on Saturday again advised French citizens to stay out of the region until security conditions improved.

Dah Dah said it was too soon to say if the kidnappers were linked to an Al-Qaeda cell responsible for other abductions in the vast desert region spanning Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in July killed a 78-year-old French hostage three months after he was kidnapped in Niger, in revenge for the killing of six comrades in a failed Mauritanian-French rescue raid.

In Friday's raid staff and diners told AFP that gunmen burst into the city centre Toulousain restaurant in Niamey and forced the Frenchmen to follow them. Dan Dah said they were brandishing AK-47 assault rifles and machine pistols.

The Frenchmen were taken to a four-by-four vehicle with Benin plates in which other armed men were waiting and then driven off at speed.

Restaurant manager Soumaila Kima said one of the men snatched was "a regular customer, living in Niamey and working for a non-government organisation in the Plateau district" of the city.

"He was dining with friends and they were talking about the wedding planned for January 15 with a woman from Niger."

Another French customer, who declined to be identified, said the kidnappers "seemed to know who they were looking for. We were seated just beside the other two but they ignored us."

A worker at the restaurant, which is owned by a former member of the French military, described the kidnapping.

"When they came in they fell on the two Frenchmen and they shouted, 'You and you, follow us'. In their rush, one of the attackers lost his turban," he said.

"The Frenchmen tried to resist but finally they pushed them into the car and they drove off quickly," he said, asking not to be named.

"I took my car and I chased them for about a kilometre, but as they were moving at great speed and with the lights out, I couldn't catch them."

The abduction echoed a raid in September on the mining town of Arlit during which five French nationals, along with a Togolese and a Madagascan were kidnapped. They are now believed to be held in Mali by AQIM.

Dan Dah said the kidnappers reportedly spoke Arabic, French and Hawza, but added that "we cannot say exactly what their identity is" because all but one had their faces concealed by turbans.

"It's too soon to establish similarities with the modus operandi of this latest kidnapping and that in Arlit (in September)."

© 2011 AFP

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