Gunmen abducted and killed two French radio journalists on assignment in northern Mali, French and Malian officials said. It was not immediately clear who carried out the killings, though suspicion quickly fell on al-Qaida's branch in the region.
Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon of Radio France Internationale were grabbed Saturday in the city of Kidal by armed men in a 4x4 just after finishing an interview with the acting head of the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, officials said. Their bodies were dumped a dozen kilometres outside the town. Their throats had been slit, according to a person who saw their bodies and four officials briefed on the matter.
French President Francois Hollande expressed his "indignation at this odious act." RFI said in a statement that the station is "in shock, profoundly saddened, indignant and angry."
It comes less than a week after France rejoiced at the release of four of its citizens, who were freed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb after a three-year-long captivity, allegedly in exchange for a hefty ransom.
Suspicion also fell Saturday on the NMLA, the Tuareg separatist movement whose rebels invaded northern Mali last year, alongside the al-Qaida fighters. The NMLA later fell out with al-Qaida and was chased out of much of northern Mali, with the exception of Kidal.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has bankrolled its operations by kidnapping Westerners, and officials in both Mali and France struggled to explain why the abductors chose to kill the journalists instead of holding them for ransom.
The 51-year-old Dupont and the 58-year-old Verlon had just completed an interview with Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, the acting head of the NMLA.
"They were in Kidal, doing their work, preparing their reportage. It was at around 1 p.m. when they finished interviewing one of the leaders of the NMLA, that they came out. And there was a pickup truck waiting for them. A few hours later, we learned that two bodies had been found 12 kilometers (7 miles) outside the city. Their throats had been cut," said Lt. Col. Oumar Sy, a Malian officer stationed in Kidal involved in the investigation.
Sy said the kidnapping could not have occurred without the NMLA's approval, given that the journalists were taken from the home of one of their leaders. "We are in a town that is in the de facto hands of the NMLA. We learn that these poor people are taken in front of the house of an NMLA leader. No one lifts a finger to help them. What conclusion would you come to?" he said.
Hours after their abduction, Rhissa said in a telephone interview with France 24 television station in Paris that he walked the journalists to the door of his home, then walked back inside. He heard a commotion and walked back outside, where he saw that a vehicle had pulled up beside the journalists' car. A man pointed a gun at him and said, "Go inside!"
Dupont and Verlon had worked at RFI since the 1980s, and were described by their editors as seasoned journalists. Dupont, a senior correspondent, spent the bulk of her career in Africa. "She was a sniffer dog, who was never content with the information she had. She always wanted to dig and dig some more," her colleague Nicolas Champeaux recalled.
Verlon, a production technician, was a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and was passionate about Africa, where he had covered numerous assignments, according to RFI.
France launched a military intervention in January in Mali, its former colony, to try and oust the jihadists from power. They succeeded in restoring government rule in all the regions formerly held by al-Qaida, with the exception of Kidal. Although the Malian military returned this summer, they remain mostly confined to their military base, largely unable to patrol the streets, while the NMLA rebel flag still flies from government buildings.
The French president called key ministers for a Sunday meeting in the first step to find out how and why the journalists were killed. Hollande and Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita agreed in a phone call to not let up on the "fight against terrorist groups that remain present in northern Mali," according to a statement from Hollande's office.
Since 2003, northern Mali has acted as a rear base for al-Qaida's North African branch, which has used the country's vast deserts north of Kidal to train fighters, amass arms and prepare for war.
According to global intelligence unit Stratfor, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has carried out at least 18 successful kidnappings of foreigners in the past decade, netting at least $89 million in ransom payments.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb embedded itself in northern Mali in part by forging alliances with the Tuareg people, who have agitated for independence for the past half-century. Several of al-Qaida's local commanders are believed to be Malian-born Tuaregs with ties to both Kidal and the NMLA.