BAMAKO/PARIS (Reuters) - Two French radio journalists were killed by gunmen in northern Mali on Saturday shortly after being abducted in the town of Kidal, French and Malian officials said.
The French government confirmed that 58-year old Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, 51, both journalists at RFI radio, had been found dead.
“The French president ... expresses his indignation over this heinous act,” Francois Hollande’s office said in a statement.
Kidal is the birthplace of a Tuareg uprising last year that plunged Mali into chaos, leading to a coup in the capital Bamako and the occupation of the northern half of the country by militants linked to al Qaeda.
A French-led military intervention drove out the militants but there are still pockets of insurgents and the incident dramatically highlighted the continuing security risks.
France still has about 3,000 soldiers in the country, alongside Malian troops and U.N. peacekeepers (MINUSMA), although it only has about 200 troops in Kidal and another 100 in Tessalit, several hundred kilometers away in the northwest.
A local prefect, sources from the Tuareg separatist group MNLA and Malian security services told Reuters the two reporters had been killed outside the town after their abduction.
“A few minutes after a pursuit began for the abductors of the two French, we were informed that their bodies were found riddled with bullets outside the town,” said Paul-Marie Sidibe, prefect of the town of Tinzawaten, who is based in Kidal.
A senior MNLA military official said the bodies had been recovered outside Kidal and a Malian security source said the journalists were killed about 12 km (8 miles) from the town.
Full details of how the journalists died were not immediately clear, although the French forces said their bodies were found by a patrol that had been told of the kidnapping.
“At no point did our forces come into visual or physical contact with the moving vehicle,” army spokesman Gilles Jaron told Reuters. “The bodies were found by the French patrol around a 4x4 that had stopped.”
He said that two French helicopters had been dispatched from Tessalit to track the hostage takers, but they arrived in the area 50 minutes after the bodies were discovered. Earlier, several French media reports said a French helicopter had tracked the kidnappers’s vehicles after the abduction
Jarron said at this stage there was no information as to who was behind the attack.
Hollande said his cabinet would meet on Sunday to work with the U.N. and Malian authorities to establish how they had been “assassinated.”
France’s defense ministry said that the French army had warned the reporters not to travel to Kidal on October 29 and refused to take them to the town.
“They were advised to not travel there due to insecurity that continues to reign in the area and the rivalry between different groups operating in the area,” the ministry said.
“Despite this advice, the two journalists took MINSUMA transportation to get to Kidal,” it said.
The journalists were seized after they interviewed Kidal resident Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, a local official with the MNLA Tuareg separatist group.
“When they left, I heard a strange noise outside. I immediately went out to see and when I opened my door, a turbaned man pointed a gun at me and told me go back inside,” Rhissa told Reuters by telephone.
“I could not see how many men were there,” he said.
RFI confirmed in a news bulletin that Dupont and Verlon were kidnapped in front of Rhissa’s house after the interview by gunmen speaking the local Tuareg dialect.
“They were put into a beige four-wheel drive vehicle and the kidnappers fired shots in the air and told Rhissa to go home,” RFI said in the report.
“Their driver heard the two reporters protest and resist. It was the last time they were seen,” RFI said.
RFI said in a statement that the journalist were working on stories on northern Mali for a special broadcast the station was planning from November 7. The broadcast has been cancelled it said.
The kidnapping happened four days after four French hostages kidnapped in Niger by al Qaeda’s north African wing were released following secret talks with officials from the West African country, ending three years in captivity.
Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott, Marion Douet in Paris and David Lewis in Dakar; writing by Bate Felix; editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Barry Moody