By Rukmini Callimichi and Elaine Ganley
The Associated Press
DAKAR, Senegal — Gunmen abducted and killed two French radio journalists on assignment in northern Mali on Saturday, French and Malian officials said, grabbing the pair as they left the home of a rebel leader.
The deaths come four days after France rejoiced at the release of four of its citizens who had been held for three years by al-Qaida’s affiliate in North Africa.
It was not immediately clear who had slain the French journalists. France launched a military intervention in January in its former colony to try and oust the jihadists from power in Kidal and other towns across northern Mali. Separatist rebels have since returned to the area.
French President Francois Hollande expressed his “indignation at this odious act.”
Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont were grabbed by several armed men in a 4x4 after they finished an interview, officials said.
Their bodies were later dumped a dozen kilometers (miles) outside the town on the road leading to Tinessako, a community to the east of Kidal, according to a person who saw the bodies and four officials briefed on the matter.
Earlier Saturday, radio station RFI confirmed the kidnappings on its website, saying Dupont, 51, and Verlon, 58, were taken at 1 p.m. by armed men in Kidal and had not been heard from since.
“From the information I have, their throats were cut. We don’t know for sure who took them, but the reports we are hearing indicate that they were Islamists,” said Lassana Camara, the deputy prefect of Tinessako, who added that an investigation was underway.
Several Kidal officials interviewed by telephone said that the RFI journalists were abducted after an interview at the house of Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, the acting head of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, a Tuareg separatist movement whose rebels invaded northern Mali last year. Those rebels were later chased out by al-Qaida’s fighters in the region but have returned to prominence in Kidal in recent months.
Lt. Col. Oumar Sy, a Malian officer stationed in Kidal and involved in the investigation, said that everything pointed to the NMLA. The town is where the rebel group is headquartered, and the journalists were taken in front of the home of the group’s acting head.
“We are in a town that is in the de facto hands of the NMLA. We learn that these poor people are taken in front of the house of an NMLA leader. No one lifts a finger to help them. What conclusion would you come to?” he said.
France launched a military operation in January to help Mali retake its north, and succeeded in restoring government rule in all the regions formerly held by al-Qaida, with the exception of Kidal. Although the Malian military returned this summer, they remain mostly confined to their military base, largely unable to patrol the streets, where the NMLA rebels can still be seen zooming through the sand-enveloped paths aboard pickup trucks bearing the NMLA flag.
Since 2003, northern Mali also has acted as a rear base for al-Qaida’s North African branch, which has used the country’s vast deserts north of Kidal to train fighters, amass arms and prepare for war. They have bankrolled their operations by kidnapping Westerners, especially French nationals.
According to global intelligence unit Stratfor, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has carried out at least 18 successful kidnappings of foreigners in the past decade, netting at least $89 million in ransom payments.
Just last week, four Frenchmen kidnapped three years ago in neighboring Niger were released by the terrorist group in the deserts of northern Mali, allegedly for ransom of more than 10 million euros ($13.5 million), according to Pascal Lupart, the head of an association representing the friends and families of hostages held by the group.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb embedded itself in northern Mali in part by forging alliances with the Tuareg people, who have agitated for independence for the past half-century. Several of al-Qaida’s local commanders are believed to be Malian-born Tuaregs, with ties to both Kidal and the local separatist movement, the NMLA.