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French envoy heads to Niger for talks on hostage killings

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-01-11

French Defence Minister Alain Juppe (photo) held talks with senior officials in Niger on Monday, urging tighter security following the deaths of two kidnapped French nationals during a failed French-Niger rescue mission near the Mali border.

French Defence Minister Alain Juppe held talks with senior Niger officials on Monday following the killing of two kidnapped French nationals over the weekend during a failed rescue mission by French and Niger troops.

The two French hostages were abducted Friday night in a restaurant in Niamey, the capital of Niger, by four armed men wearing turbans, according to witnesses in Le Toulousain, a popular eatery frequented by Niger and Western nationals.
While no group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, Juppe said there was “little doubt” about the involvement of al Qaeda’s North Africa branch, also known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The bodies of the two 25-year-old friends - Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory - were found Saturday near the Niger-Mali border after a fire fight between the kidnappers and French and Niger troops. De Leocour, an aid worker, was to marry a local woman in one week’s time, and Delory was to be his best man.

Three Niger troops and some of the kidnappers were killed during the operation, according to Nigerien officials.

Zone of influence of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
It was the second failed rescue mission in six months in the Sahel, a hostile, forbidding terrain that straddles the borders of Niger, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania and has traditionally afforded shelter to smugglers, traffickers, insurgents and militants of various stripes.

In July 2010, AQIM announced that it had executed another French hostage, 78-year-old Michel Germeneau, “in retaliation” for the killing of six AQIM militants during a failed rescue mission in the Sahel by French and Mauritanian troops.

"I asked for extra security measures to be taken in order firstly for a certain number of places to be better secured," Juppe said, naming the French lycee (high school), the French cultural centre and the airport.

Did the military operation seal the hostages’ fates?

But as the French defence minister arrived in the West African nation for talks Monday, questions were raised about whether the hostages’ fates were sealed by the joint French-Niger intervention, and if France should play an active role in hunting down militants in the vast, largely ungoverned region.

French officials have defended the military option, stressing France’s resolve to fight terrorism. "This heinous crime reinforces the resolve of France to fight against terrorists and terrorism ... democracies cannot accept this," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy during a visit to the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe over the weekend.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Jean-Vincent Brisset, a French military expert at the Paris-based IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques) said it was critical, in such situations, to react quickly.

“It’s a very viable technique to act as quickly as possible,” said Brisset. “Experience shows that if we react quickly, we’re more likely to rescue hostages than if we wait.”
International fight against militancy in the region.

France, the former colonial power in the region, faces a growing threat from al Qaeda’s North African branch with recent AQIM statements warning of increased attacks against French interests in the region.

In a purported AQIM audiotape released in November, the group’s media-savvy chief, Abdelmalek Droukdel said France would have to personally negotiate with al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden for the release of five French citizens kidnapped in a uranium mining town in Niger in September.

Amid increasing concerns about terrorism and trafficking in the remote northwest African region, the governments of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger opened a joint military headquarters deep in the desert in April 2010. The goal has been to establish a collective response to militant threats.

But while experts view countries such as Algeria and Mauritania as relatively strong in their fight against militants, poverty and chronic political instability in nations such as Niger and Mali have hindered their ability to tackle terrorism in the region.

In recent months, France has increased its military cooperation with local forces in the region. While a number of French troops are deployed in the area, the US has been providing training for the local troops.

Despite the geographic difficulties, Brisset said he believed French troops were well equipped to handle the threat from the region.

Tracking devices and special forces in the desert

French military capability in the region, according to Brisset, improved following the September kidnapping of five French nationals from a uranium mining town in Niger.
“Since the abduction of five French employees (of French firms) Areva and Statom in Niger in September, France has the means to react,” said Brisset. “It started at the time of the abduction of Michael Germaneau, but [at that time], France did not have sufficient resources. Today, we have special forces, surveillance aircraft, helicopters to transport troops quickly and most importantly, clear instructions to respond, which is often lacking in such situations,” he said.

Shortly after the two Frenchmen were kidnapped from Niamey over the weekend, their kidnappers were located by French Atlantic-2 (ATL-2) surveillance aircraft operating in the region.

“Potential kidnappers are only a few dozen men,” said Brisset. “We do not need thousands of men, we need helicopters, communication and surveillance devices and we are quite well equipped for this.”


Date created : 2011-01-10


    French hostages killed during botched rescue mission

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