France says 'terrorists' behind murder of journalists in Mali

PARIS - Paris on Sunday blamed terrorist groups for the murder in "cold blood" of two radio journalists in northern Mali, and said French troops would boost security in the restive zone.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Radio France Internationale (RFI) journalist Ghislaine Dupont and sound technician Claude Verlon were shot dead after being abducted by armed men on Saturday.

"They were killed in cold blood, one took two bullets and the other three," he said after crisis talks led by President Francois Hollande on the murders in the northeastern town of Kidal.

"The killers are those we are fighting, the terrorist groups who are opposed to democracy and elections," he said.

He said security in "the entire zone and neighbouring areas, in particular with concern to French citizens, will be intensified."

A government source said this meant making the presence of French troops based in northern Mali "more visible." Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and the head of France's external intelligence services agency Bernard Bajolet also attended the hour-long talks with Hollande.

Dupont, 57, and Verlon, 55, had travelled Saturday to Kidal to interview a spokesman for the Tuareg separatist group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and were abducted outside his home, according to their employer.

They were both veteran journalists experienced in Africa reporting. Dupont had spent 27 years covering the continent since joining RFI in 1986.

RFI quoted MNLA spokesman Ambery Ag Rhissa as saying he heard a commotion outside and saw the pair being bundled into a four wheel-drive vehicle after the interview.

Men in turbans and speaking the Tuareg language of Tamashek "ordered Mr Ag Rhissa to get back inside and forced the journalists' driver to lie down", RFI said, adding that Rhissa had heard Verlon and Dupont resist and protest.

"This was the last time that the journalists were seen alive," said Marie-Christine Saragosse, CEO of France Media Monde, which owns RFI.

She said she was leaving for Mali to bring back the bodies.

The corpses were found less than two hours later by a French military patrol about 12 kilometres (seven miles) east of Kidal, Fabius said, adding their bodies were lying near the car.

On Tuesday, four Frenchmen were freed three years after being abducted in Niger, which neighbours Mali, by an Al-Qaeda offshoot. They had been held in Mali's vast arid north.

But jubilation over their liberation was tempered by speculation that a huge ransom may have been paid to secure their freedom. Paris has denied paying money to the kidnappers.

The United Nations Security Council has strongly condemned the killing while European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called it a "barbaric assassination."

Kidal residents 'deeply upset' over deaths

There has been a resurgence of violence in Mali, a former French colony in west Africa where Paris sent troops early this year to drive out Islamists and Tuareg MNLA rebels who had seized the country's vast north after a coup in Bamako.

Malian Defence Minister Soumeilou Boubeye Maiga told France 24 television that Kidal was "the only region where the sovereignty of the state is not effective," adding that the free circulation of arms in the area created a situation "which can benefit all radical elements." Kidal residents were still reeling from shock on Sunday.

"I am deeply upset. I saw the two journalists an hour before they died. They were happy to be with us," said Awa Diallo.

"They were very kind," she added.

Kidal, situated more than 1,500 kilometres northeast of Bamako, is the traditional homeland of the Tuareg people and the birthplace of the MNLA's rebellion.

A French government source said the journalists had asked to be taken there with troops from France's Operation Serval mission but ended up going with the United Nations MINUSMA peacekeeping force after Serval refused for safety reasons.

The deaths come just three weeks ahead of parliamentary elections which are supposed to mark the completion of Mali's transition back to democracy following a military coup in March last year.

As the Islamists were driven out of their strongholds by the French-led offensive the MNLA, their former allies, in February took control of Kidal.

Malian authorities finally reclaimed the city after signing a deal with the MNLA on June 18 which saw the rebels moved into barracks as regular troops were deployed to secure Kidal.

Some 2,000 French troops from an initial deployment of 3,000 will remain on the ground - including around Kidal - until the end of December, with the withdrawal of a further 1,000 to be completed by the end of January 2014.