France says its journalists "coldly assassinated" in Mali

Reuters

* Joint investigation underway but Paris blames terrorists

* Incident marks spike in attacks in northern Mali

By John Irish and Adama Diarra

PARIS/BAMAKO, Nov 3 (Reuters) - France said on Sunday twoFrench journalists found dead in the northern Mali region ofKidal had been "coldly assassinated" by militants and vowed tostep up security measures in the area.

Radio journalists Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont wereabducted after interviewing a member of the MNLA Tuaregseparatist group in northern Mali.

Their bodies were found on Saturday by a French patrol 12 km(8 miles) outside Kidal, the birthplace of a Tuareg uprisinglast year that plunged Mali into chaos, leading to a coup in thecapital Bamako and the occupation of the northern half of thecountry by militants linked to al Qaeda.

Adama Kamissoko, the governor of Kidal region, said Frenchand Malian security officials were jointly investigating theattack, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius put the blamefirmly on militants operating in the region.

"The assassins are those that we are fighting, the terroristgroups that refuse democracy and elections," Fabius said,calling the killings "heinous and revolting".

Fabius said one of the journalists had been shot twice, andthe other three times. He said French forces had tried to findthe hostage takers, but to no avail.

Paris launched air strikes and sent thousands of soldiersinto Mali at the start of the year to drive back al Qaeda-linkedrebels it said could turn the West African country into a basefor international attacks.

Islamists scattered during the French assault and apresidential election was held in July. But the journalists'deaths follow a number of attacks elsewhere in northern Mali,underscoring the fragile gains in the vast desert zone.

Last month Malian and international forces launched awide-scale operation to keep pressure on Islamist groups.

Although Malian, U.N. and French troops are stationed inKidal, none are heavily deployed. The Malian army's contingentis generally symbolic and soldiers are confined to their base.

There are some 200 U.N. peacekeepers (MINUSMA)who areofficially in control of security and France also has about 200troops, though their operations in the region have focussed onthe Adrar des Ifoghas mountains to the north, which served foryears as a hideout for militants.

GUNMEN ROAM KIDAL

"Security in the area and the surrounding areas will beincreased," Fabius said after a specially convened cabinetmeeting. He did not elaborate.

Mali government spokesman Mahamane Baby echoed thosecomments saying President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Hollandehad agreed that the status quo could not remain during atelephone call late on Saturday.

"The two heads of state agreed that the situation in Kidalwas unacceptable and that a change was necessary to ensure thesecurity of all Malians and foreigners present there," he said.

According to the Ouagadougou agreement signed by Mali'sgovernment and rebel groups ahead of the July elections thataimed to pave the way for a peace deal across the country, rebelfighters were due to be confined to barracks before the newgovernment launched a final round of peace talks.

However, MNLA fighters still operate in and around Kidal,much to the frustration of Bamako.

The journalists' deaths came just days after four Frenchhostages kidnapped in Niger by al Qaeda's north African (AQIM)wing were released following secret talks with officials fromthe West African country. They had been held for three years.

Paris dismissed media reports the government had used publicfunds to pay a ransom of some $20 million.

Pierre Boilley, an Africa expert at the Centre for NationalScientific Research (CNRS), said the attack was likely to havebeen carried out by groups linked to AQIM or those trying toundermine talks between the government and northern rebels.

"It could also have been vengeance. There are difficultieswithin AQIM. Some may have benefited from the hostages' ransom,and others may have been neglected so it's a possiblehypothesis," he said.

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