REUTERS - Two French hostages kidnapped in Niger were found dead on Saturday after a failed rescue operation involving French forces, Defence Minister Alain Juppe said.
It was the second abortive French hostage rescue since July in the Sahel region of Africa, where Paris says it is at war with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the regional branch of Osama bin Laden's network.
The pair were abducted from a bar overnight, the latest French nationals to be snatched in the African country but the first in its capital Niamey, far from the lawless desert where Islamist militants, rebels and bandits flourish.
Juppe said in a statement in Paris that the kidnappers had been pursued to the border with Mali in an operation coordinated with French forces in the region.
"The terrorists were intercepted at the Mali border and several of them were overpowered," Juppe said. "After the fighting, the two hostages were found dead."
He added: "France is determined to not give in to terrorism and to defeat terrorists."
It was not immediately clear who carried out the latest kidnapping, but security analyst Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, a former Malian defence minister, said it bore the hallmark of an operation by groups linked to al Qaeda in the region.
"This is an escalation...It is a sign that they are determined to attack states and Western interests to create a zone of insecurity," he told Reuters. "Countries are struggling to coordinate their response. This should push countries to implement much more rigorous security measures."
A Nigerien government source told Reuters the bodies of the two men had been flown back to Niamey.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking during a visit to Martinique, told reporters earlier that the Niger National Guard had clashed with the "terrorists" and were chasing them towards Mali.
Last July another French hostage, Michel Germaneau, 78, was killed by AQIM after a failed French rescue mission in Mali following his abduction in Niger.
Kidnappers in turbans with guns
Search operations were launched on Saturday after witnesses said several men wearing turbans entered the "Toulousain" bar in Niamey and took the two men away in a car.
"Four men wearing turbans armed with automatic weapons entered the bar. Three went straight to the table the Frenchmen were at while the other one remained at the entrance," said Mamane Rabiou Aboubacar, who was in the bar at the time.
"The attackers spoke in Arabic and then forced the Frenchmen to go with them."
AQIM, which operates across West and North Africa's vast Sahara desert, is holding another five French citizens, some of whom work for mining giant Areva. They were among a group of seven foreigners kidnapped from the northern mining town of Arlit in September last year.
Loic Garnier, head of the counter-terrorism section at France's Interior Ministry, told Reuters earlier this week AQIM remained the single greatest danger to French interests and citizens at home and abroad.
Photo © Claude Ménager under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.