French hostages in Niger killed in ‘cold blood’

Suspected al-Qaeda kidnappers killed two young French hostages in cold blood during a failed rescue operation in the deserts of Niger, France’s Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Monday.

“The hostage-takers, seeing they were pursued, killed the hostages in cold blood, according to the first elements in my possession,” Fillon said, adding he was “almost certain” the Islamist movement al-Qaeda was to blame.

“The investigation will of course go deeper, and all the results will be given to the families of the victims. Terrorism has shattered their lives, but it will not reduce our determination to battle this scourge.”

Antoine De Leocour and Vincent Delory, both aged 25, died on Saturday in northern Niger, one day after they were snatched from a restaurant by gunmen.

France had not previously formally blamed the kidnap on al-Qaeda, but officials strongly suspect the group’s north African affiliate — al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — was behind the attack.

AQIM is already holding five French hostages taken last year in Niger, and was blamed for the death of a sixth. France has deployed troops to the region and is working with local forces to track the kidnappers.

Niger troops and French special forces commandos backed by reconnaissance planes set off in pursuit of the gunmen, and fighting erupted Saturday as they attempted to rescue the hostages.

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was in Washington for talks with United States counterpart Barack Obama on Monday, plans to visit the families of the deceased men near the northern city of Lille next week, his office said. — Sapa-AFP

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