France asks Niger to tighten security after hostages killed

France said al Qaeda was "absolutely" behind the kidnapping of two Frenchmen.

Niamey: France on Monday called for tighter security in Niger, saying al Qaeda was "absolutely" behind the kidnapping of two Frenchmen from a Niamey restaurant who were killed during a failed rescue bid.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the pair were killed "in cold blood" by their captors during a French rescue attempt after they were chased up to the Mali border by Niger forces on Saturday.

In Niamey, visiting Defence Minister Alain Juppe paid his respects to the dead men, Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory, both aged 25, and thanked Niger forces for their efforts, before holding talks with junta leader General Salou Djibo.

"I asked for extra security measures to be taken in order firstly for a certain number of places to be better secured," Juppe said, naming the French lycee (high school), the French cultural centre and the airport.

"The Niger authorities assured me that they would review their measures in order to improve things," said Juppe, who left the country late Monday.

About 1,500 French expatriates live in Niger, where French giant Areva mines uranium.

A Malian security source, meanwhile, said that proof of the involvement of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had been found at the site where French special forces backed by helicopters attacked the kidnappers.

AQIM documents had been found at the scene of the strike, as well as an itinerary and two satellite phones, the source said.

Asked if he could confirm al Qaeda`s involvement in the brazen city centre raid late Friday, Juppe said: "Absolutely."

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the abduction.

US President Barack Obama, meanwhile, offered his condolences to French President Nicolas Sarkozy during talks at the White House.

"The United States and France are determined to be allies on the subject of terrorism," Sarkozy said. "We believe that weakness is a grave error and we have no choice but to fight these terrorists wherever they are."

"Democracies cannot yield, democracies must defend themselves when such fundamental values are at stake," he added.

The European Union`s chief diplomat Catherine Ashton said the EU "firmly condemned this odious act" and sent its condolences to the men`s families as well as to those of the Niger troops killed in the rescue bid.

At least three Niger troops were killed in the rescue bid, as well as several militants.

Speaking in Paris, Fillon said: "The hostage-takers, seeing they were pursued, killed the hostages in cold blood, according to the first elements in my possession."

He said that Niger forces had chased the kidnappers as far as the border, then asked the French for aid when they crossed into Mali. With Bamako`s permission French forces launched an assault.

The bodies of childhood friends De Leocour and Delory were found in the desert after the operation.

De Leocour was a former aid worker who had been due to marry a Niger woman next week, and Delory his best man who had arrived in Niamey for the wedding hours before they were snatched.

Several kidnappings of foreigners in the arid Sahel region spanning Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria have been carried out by or on behalf of AQIM.

The group is holding five French citizens, a Togolese and a Madagascan, reportedly in northern Mali, after they were seized from Niger`s uranium mining town of Arlit in September.

AQIM in July killed a 78-year-old French hostage who was kidnapped in Niger after six of its militants were killed in a joint French-Mauritanian rescue bid.

France`s Foreign Ministry warned its nationals against travel to the entire region.

"In light of the terrorist threat in the region, no place can be considered safe," the ministry said on its website.

The French military has said that a French surveillance aircraft backed up Niger`s armed forces as they chased the kidnappers across the desert. Fillon has intimated that some of the kidnappers had been captured.

Two French ground troops were slightly injured in the final attack which also involved four French helicopters based in Mali.

Bureau Report