Sahel no longer safe after al Qaeda attack: France

Suspected al Qaeda militants killed two Frenchmen in Niger on Saturday.

Niamey: France said on Sunday the African Sahel region was no longer safe for its citizens after suspected al Qaeda militants killed two Frenchmen in Niger.

The pair were found dead, apparently killed by their kidnappers on Saturday, after French special forces joined a failed attempt to rescue them in the African state.

"French nationals should be extremely vigilant and careful at all times," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement posted on its website. "In view of the terrorism threat on the region, no area can be considered safe any longer."

The Sahel includes Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Northern Nigeria.

The two victims were abducted from a bar, bringing to eight the number of French nationals snatched in Niger since last April. They were the first to be seized in the capital Niamey, far from the lawless desert where Islamist militants, rebels and bandits flourish.

"This heinous crime reinforces the resolve of France to fight against terrorists and terrorism ... democracies cannot accept this," President Nicolas Sarkozy said on a visit to France`s overseas territory of Guadeloupe.

"We will never accept the diktat of terrorists," he said.

Defence Minister Alain Juppe, who travels to Niamey on Monday to meet Niger authorities and the French community, told TF1 television that if Paris had not intervened it would have signalled that France no longer fought against terrorism.

"It was a hard decision, but we accept the consequences," he said, adding Sarkozy had made the decision to intervene.

Analysts say the kidnapping bore the hallmark of an operation by groups linked to al Qaeda in the region.

"It is likely ... I think we can say that," French Armed Forces Spokesman Thierry Burkhard said on Sunday when asked whether the kidnappers belonged to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Weekly magazine Le Point`s well-informed defence blog cited military sources as saying a group linked to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the less radical of AQIM`s operatives in the Sahel, was behind the abduction.

It was the second abortive French hostage rescue since July in the arid Sahel region where Paris says it is at war with AQIM, the North African arm of Osama bin Laden`s network.

Hostages of choice

Speaking on BFM TV, Axel Poniatowski, president of Parliament`s foreign affairs commission, said French nationals could no longer see the region as a tourism destination like Morocco or Tunisia and should no longer travel there.

Last July, another French hostage, Michel Germaneau, 78, was killed by AQIM after a failed French rescue mission in Mali following his abduction in Niger.

A high-ranking Nigerien military official said the two hostages had probably been executed before a confrontation with French and Niger forces and the kidnappers had begun, as the hostages` bodies were found away from the clash area.

"The kidnappers were killed in their car ... they were the only people in the car at the time of the clash so the execution happened beforehand," he said, adding all the abductors had been killed.

Burkhard did not give details on how many kidnappers were involved or whether they had all been killed.

"The risk of hostages being killed was taken into account, but the message sent to the kidnappers was clear, strong, deliberate ... Enough!" a military source close to the operation told Le Point. "We say to the kidnappers: we will hunt down and destroy you, even if our hostages are killed."

AQIM, which operates across West and North Africa`s vast Sahara desert, is holding another five French citizens, some of whom work for mining giant Areva. They were among a group of seven foreigners kidnapped from the northern mining town of Arlit in September last year.

Bureau Report

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