Two French journalists abducted, killed in northern Mali

Reuters

* Journalists shot by abductors, Hollande condemns"assassination"

* Journalists warned not to go to area due to insecurity,ministry says

* RFI says journalists had just interviewed MNLA official

* French army says had no contact with kidnappers

By Adama Diarra and John Irish

BAMAKO/PARIS, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Two French radio journalistswere killed by gunmen in northern Mali on Saturday shortly afterbeing abducted in the town of Kidal, French and Malian officialssaid.

The French government confirmed that 58-year old ClaudeVerlon and Ghislaine Dupont, 51, both journalists at RFI radio,had been found dead.

"The French president ... expresses his indignation over this heinous act," Francois Hollande's office said in astatement.

Kidal is the birthplace of a Tuareg uprising last year thatplunged Mali into chaos, leading to a coup in the capital Bamakoand the occupation of the northern half of the country bymilitants linked to al Qaeda.

A French-led military intervention drove out the militantsbut there are still pockets of insurgents and the incidentdramatically highlighted the continuing security risks.

France still has about 3,000 soldiers in the country,alongside Malian troops and U.N. peacekeepers (MINUSMA),although it only has about 200 troops in Kidal and another 100in Tessalit, several hundred kilometres away in the northwest.

A local prefect, sources from the Tuareg separatist groupMNLA and Malian security services told Reuters the two reportershad been killed outside the town after their abduction.

"A few minutes after a pursuit began for the abductors ofthe two French, we were informed that their bodies were foundriddled with bullets outside the town," said Paul-Marie Sidibe,prefect of the town of Tinzawaten, who is based in Kidal.

A senior MNLA military official said the bodies had beenrecovered outside Kidal and a Malian security source said thejournalists were killed about 12 km (8 miles) from the town.

Full details of how the journalists died were notimmediately clear, although the French forces said their bodieswere found by a patrol that had been told of the kidnapping.

"At no point did our forces come into visual or physicalcontact with the moving vehicle," army spokesman Gilles Jarontold Reuters. "The bodies were found by the French patrol arounda 4x4 that had stopped."

He said that two French helicopters had been dispatched fromTessalit to track the hostage takers, but they arrived in thearea 50 minutes after the bodies were discovered. Earlier,several French media reports said a French helicopter hadtracked the kidnappers's vehicles after the abduction

Jarron said at this stage there was no information as to whowas behind the attack.

Hollande said his cabinet would meet on Sunday to work withthe U.N. and Malian authorities to establish how they had been"assassinated."

JOURNALISTS "ADVISED NOT TO TRAVEL"

France's defence ministry said that the French army hadwarned the reporters not to travel to Kidal on Oct. 29 andrefused to take them to the town.

"They were advised to not travel there due to insecuritythat continues to reign in the area and the rivalry betweendifferent groups operating in the area," the ministry said.

"Despite this advice, the two journalists took MINSUMAtransportation to get to Kidal," it said.

The journalists were seized after they interviewed Kidalresident Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, a local official with the MNLATuareg separatist group.

"When they left, I heard a strange noise outside. Iimmediately went out to see and when I opened my door, aturbaned man pointed a gun at me and told me go back inside,"Rhissa told Reuters by telephone.

"I could not see how many men were there," he said.

RFI confirmed in a news bulletin that Dupont and Verlon werekidnapped in front of Rhissa's house after the interview bygunmen speaking the local Tuareg dialect.

"They were put into a beige four-wheel drive vehicle and thekidnappers fired shots in the air and told Rhissa to go home,"RFI said in the report.

"Their driver heard the two reporters protest and resist. Itwas the last time they were seen," RFI said.

RFI said in a statement that the journalist were working onstories on northern Mali for a special broadcast the station wasplanning from November 7. The broadcast has been cancelled itsaid.

The kidnapping happened four days after four French hostageshostages kidnapped in Niger by al Qaeda's north African wingwere released following secret talks with officials from theWest African country, ending three years in captivity.

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