Officials blame Al Qaeda for killing of French hostages in Niger

French and African officials say Saturday's killing of two French hostage in Niger was likely carried out by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has claimed responsibility for a number of kidnappings in recent years.

Djibo Tagaza/AP
The Toulousain restaurant where two French nationals were kidnapped at gunpoint late Friday by turbaned men, in Niamey, Niger. A witness was dining inside when he says two men walked in, pulled out guns and told the French citizens to follow them.

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Two French hostages were killed Saturday after a reported rescue attempt ended in a shoot out in Niger.

French and African officials say the hostage attack in the West African country was likely carried out by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has claimed responsibility for a number of kidnappings in recent years.

“This is an escalation.... It is a sign that they are determined to attack states and Western interests to create a zone of insecurity,” said Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, a former Malian defense minister, in an article by Reuters. “Countries are struggling to coordinate their response. This should push countries to implement much more rigorous security measures.”

How the attack happened

Men wearing turbans and clothes common among Niger’s northern desert tribesmen, reportedly stormed a bar in the capital city of Niamey and abducted the two men.

The Nigerien and French military pursued them to the border of Mali, where a gun battle erupted. Officials say it appears that the captors executed the French captives during the rescue attempt.

“With the operation launched and coordinated with French elements in the region, the terrorists were intercepted at the Mali border and several of them were overpowered,” said Alain Juppé, France’s Minister of Defense reports Al Jazeera. “After the fighting, the two hostages were found dead.”

The two killed were Antoine de Leocour, an aid worker in Niger, and his friend Vincent Delory, who recently arrived in the country to attend Mr. de Leocour's wedding.

Al Qaeda's kidnapping in the region

Kidnapping has been a growing problem in the Sahelian regions of Niger, Mali, Algeria, and Mauritania.

Including the two French hostages, four people have been abducted and killed there in the past two years. In September, five French citizens and two Africans were kidnapped by AQIM, which demanded that France negotiate with Osama bin Laden and pull out of Afghanistan in exchange for their release. French authorities say the area where AQIM operates is “essentially lawless and is outside the sovereign reach of governments,” reports The New York Times.

France refuses to negotiate?

French officials have refused to negotiate with Mr. bin Laden, but stirred some controversy in October when France’s defense minister announced plans to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan a day after bin Laden allegedly issued an audio tape, reports Deutsche Welle.

French officials insisted that the audio tape and France’s decision were unconnected. The tape also described the abduction of the Frenchmen in Niger as the result of “injustices against Muslims.”

In the face of worsening security conditions, French authorities are now advising all of their citizens to avoid travel in the Sahel region, reports Agence France-Presse. On the French Foreign Ministry’s website, citizens are urged to practice “the greatest vigilance” and warned that “No place can be considered safe” for French traveling in the area.

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