Nine killed in failed French hostage rescue: prosecutor

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Nine people -- four alleged kidnappers, three Niger police and two hostages -- were killed in a failed French rescue bid in the Mali desert, a senior French prosecutor said Thursday.

An investigation has been launched to clear up several mysteries left behind after Saturday's special forces raid, in which French troops battled hostage-takers from Al-Qaeda's North African offshoot.

Paris prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said no suspected kidnappers were "at present" being held by authorities in Niger, despite France's Defence Minister Alain Juppe earlier having said that two captives had been handed over.

Niger has denied that it is holding any suspects, and has complained that its three gendarmes were killed by French troops. France has accused "gunmen in Niger gendarmerie uniforms" of attacking its forces.

Marin also played down rumours the two 25-year-old French hostages, Vincent Delory and Antoine de Leocour, had been specifically targeted, saying gunmen had plucked them at random from among Niamey restaurant-goers.

The pair were seized from the Restaurant Toulousain in the Niger capital on Friday -- they were sitting closest to the door, according to Marin -- and were taken in an armed militant convoy towards the Malian border.

An initial attempt by Niger security forces to block their path failed and on Saturday, after they had crossed into Mali, helicopter-borne French commandos went into action, triggering a fierce gunbattle.

After the battle, the two young Frenchmen were found dead, and French leaders have accused Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- which has claimed responsibility for the kidnap -- of executing their prisoners.

Marin said an autopsy had confirmed that Leocour had died after being shot once in the face at point blank range, "close enough to touch", which he said appeared to support the execution theory.

But he said Delory's cause of death was more difficult to establish. The second hostage suffered at least five gunshot wounds and was severely burned, and it is not clear if he had died from injuries or smoke inhalation.

© 2011 AFP

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