Two young Frenchmen who died less than 24 hours after being kidnapped in Niger were probably killed by their captors, French military officials said today.
The bodies of the men, one an aid worker and the other his childhood friend, were found in the desert near the west African country’s border with Mali after an unsuccessful rescue operation. They were believed to have been snatched by al-Qaida’s north African operation.
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, condemned the killings as a “cowardly and barbaric act” but added they would strengthen France’s resolve to “fight terrorist barbarism without respite”.
Antoine de Léocour, 25, had been living in Niger for two years and was planning to marry his fiancee, a local woman called Rakia, on Saturday. His friend Vincent Delory, 25, a computer engineer, had flown to the Niger capital, Niamey, to be best man at the wedding. He arrived on Friday afternoon, only a few hours before he was kidnapped.
The two men were dining at Le Toulousain restaurant in the centre of Niamey when they were approached at their table by four armed men believed to be part of al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb shortly before 11pm. In a matter of minutes, they were marched out of the restaurant at gunpoint and ordered into a 4×4 Toyota parked in front of the restaurant.
Witnesses said the men, carrying machine guns, abducted the Frenchmen like professional commandos, silently and without a shot being fired.
As the kidnappers took off at speed towards Niger’s western border with Mali, another restaurant customer and a taxi driver attempted to follow the vehicle and alerted the police.
Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for the French army, said Niger’s national guard and a French surveillance plane had followed the kidnappers into the desert. The troops launched an attack but held back for fear of the hostages being hit. As a result one Niger commander was injured.
In a second attack near the border a number of kidnappers were reported to have been killed. The two men’s bodies were then found. “Pending the outcome of an investigation, everything seems to indicate that the two French hostages were executed,” Burkhard told AFP.
The two victims, who came from Linselles on the outskirts of Lille had celebrated the New Year together in France before Léocour returned to Niamey to make final preparations for his wedding.
The deaths are the latest attack on French citizens in Niger. Five hostages were seized from the French energy companies Areva and Veolia in the north of the country in September.
France has warned its citizens against all travel to the region, saying the threat stretches from Africa’s Atlantic coast to the Red Sea, with “no area … considered safe”. Guardian