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French Defence Minister confirms AQIM involvement in kidnappings

Video by Mairead DUNDAS

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2011-01-11

French Defence Minister Alain Juppe said late Monday that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was responsible for the kidnapping of two French nationals, who were subsequently killed during a failed French-Niger rescue mission near the Mali border.

French Defense Minister Alain Juppe confirmed late Monday that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was linked to the kidnapping of two Frenchmen who were killed during a botched rescue attempt.

Aid workers Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory 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.

Zone of influence of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

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.

A Malian security source, meanwhile, told reporters on Monday that AQIM documents as well as an itinerary and two satellite phones had been found at the site where French special forces had attacked the kidnappers.

Juppe, who was in Niger’s capital Niamey on Monday, urged senior officials to review security measures in areas like the French high school and French cultural centre. More than a thousand French expatriates live in Niger, where French conglomerate Areva mines uranium.

Meanwhile French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to meet the families of the two victims, whose bodies are expected to be repatriated to France later Tuesday.

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.

Saturday’s mission was the second failed rescue efforts 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.

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 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.

The group is holding five French citizens after they were seized from Niger's uranium mining town of Arlit in September last year.

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.

Date created : 2011-01-11

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