Saturday, January 8, 2011

2 French Hostages Are Found Dead in Niger

Two Frenchmen kidnapped in Niger were found dead on Saturday after a rescue attempt on the border with Mali that involved the militaries of both Niger and France, the French government said.

The hostages were kidnapped late Friday night from a bar in Niamey, the Niger capital, reportedly by four armed men wearing turbans who tried to take them into Mali.

They were pursued by Niger’s military, with French military help, and were intercepted at the border on Saturday. After a firefight, the hostages were found dead, the French defense minister, Alain Juppé, said in a statement.

“The terrorists were intercepted at the Mali border and several of them were neutralized,” he said, using a euphemism for killed. “After the fighting, the two hostages were found dead.” Their names were not immediately released.

Mr. Juppé said that the operation was “coordinated” by French forces based in the region that participated in the firefight at the border.

French officials said they believed that the hostages were killed by their kidnappers.

“At this stage, everything makes us believe that they were executed by the terrorists,” a military spokesman, Thierry Burkhard, told Reuters, adding that French special forces had intervened after one of their surveillance aircraft spotted the kidnappers close to the Mali border.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the abduction, but the assumption in Paris was that it was carried out by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France condemned the kidnapping and deaths of the two hostages as “a barbaric and cowardly act” in a communiqué.

The death of the two Frenchmen brings to four the number of foreign hostages killed in the Sahel region — Niger, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania — in the past two years.

A British tourist, Edwin Dyer, was kidnapped in Niger and held in Mali two years ago, along with three other European tourists. His death was announced by AQIM in June 2009; the other three were released.

In April 2010, a French engineer, Michel Germaneau, 78, was kidnapped in the north of Niger as he supervised the construction of a school for an aid organization. He was killed in July by AQIM, which said it was taking revenge for the deaths of AQIM fighters three days before in a French-Mauritanian raid in Mali.

In September, five more Frenchmen, along with two Africans, were kidnapped in northern Niger on the site of a uranium mine worked by French companies. They are thought by French officials to be held in the northeast of Mali. In November, AQIM demanded that France negotiate the freedom of the hostages with Osama bin Laden and pull its troops out of Afghanistan.

French officials say the vast territory in which AQIM operates is essentially lawless and is outside the sovereign reach of governments.

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