Niamey (AFP) Jan 9, 2011
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, due in Niamey for talks with Niger officials and French nationals on Monday, said that given the circumstances there was "little doubt" about the involvement of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
A Nigerien government spokesman said on state television late Sunday that three Nigerien security forces had been killed in the attack on the kidnappers, without elaborating on the circumstances of their deaths.
One of the dead hostages was a former aid worker who had been due to marry a Nigerien woman next week. The other was his best man, according to France's Journal du Dimanche, who had just arrived in Niamey for the ceremony.
The hostages' 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, Rakia Hassan Kouka, told AFP she would pray for the two.
"I'm in no state to talk right now, I'm in shock, I can't believe it," she said, choking back tears. "I'm going to pray a lot for them, so that they can go to paradise."
Another childhood friend of Leocour, named as Louis, told France's Europe 1 radio station that 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 backing 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 firefight took place in which "several" of the kidnappers were killed and two French ground troops slightly injured, Burkhard said.
A security source in the north of Mali, where the kidnappers were headed, said that four French attack helicopters had taken part in the attack, one of which was hit by the kidnappers.
"The aircraft were stationed at the airport of a town in northern Mali... One of them was damaged, surely by enemy fire," the source 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."
Juppe told French TF1 television late Sunday the government was taking "full responsibility" for the decision to free the hostages.
"It was a decision that had to be taken, it was grave, it was serious, we took it and we take full responsibility," said Juppe.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the killings as "a barbarous and cowardly act".
France will "never accept the diktat of terrorism and terrorists", he vowed.
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, which has claimed other abductions in the largely lawless desert 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.
France's foreign ministry warned its nationals against travel to the region.
"In light of the terrorist threat in the region, no place can be considered safe," the ministry said on its website.
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