Al-Qaeda’s African division claimed responsibility for the murders of two French journalists in Mali’s terrorist-infested desert, saying they were killed to avenge France’s “new crusade” in its former colony.
Telegraph (h/t Monica J) Ghislaine Dupont, 57, and Claude Verlon, 55, were kidnapped and shot dead by what French officials called “terrorist groups” after interviewing a spokesman for Tuareg separatists in the flashpoint northeastern town of Kidal on Saturday.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said in a statement published online by Mauritanian news agency Sahara Medias the killings were “the minimum debt” owed by the French people and President Francois Hollande “in return for their new crusade”. “This operation was a response to crimes committed by France against Malians and the work of African and international forces against the Muslims of Azawad,” AQIM said, using the name given by the Tuareg people to northern Mali.
They were abducted in broad daylight after interviewing Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, a local official of the MNLA ethnic Tuareg separatist group. Kidal is the birthplace of a Tuareg uprising last year that plunged Mali into chaos, leading to a coup in the capital Bamako and the occupation of the northern half of the country by militants linked to al Qaeda.
According to Le Monde, French intelligence and anti-terror investigators have identified three of the men who they believe abducted the dead French journalists, and that they all belong to a commando loyal to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
It cited one possible motive for the killing as the failure of France to release several of the men’s relations currently being held in Bamako as part of a deal to free four hostages who returned to France last week after three years at the hands of al Qaeda in neighbouring Niger.
France has denied widespread reports that a ransom of up to 25 million euros (£21.5 million) was paid to secure their freedom.
The three men cited by Le Monde were reportedly identified after agents, backed by troops from France’s Serval operation to flush out Islamic militants from Mali, found a document in a car near where the journalists’ bodies were found, a few miles outside the town.
This allowed them to pinpoint a first individual known to intelligence services since 2010. The three men, all said to be from the same family clan, were reportedly interrogated several times in the past five months by French intelligence, along with many other combatants, but released.
They were said to be among numerous Touareg rebels who joined forces with AQIM but after France’s successful military operation then apparently chose the path of reconciliation with the High Council for the Unity of Azawad. The HCUA is one of three rebel groups that today (Wed) agreed to disarm and merge, creating a united front in an ongoing peace process with the government.
Although the French government declined to comment on the Le Monde report, it said that the investigation into the journalists’ deaths was “progressing well”. At least 35 suspects had been arrested in the past two days as the hunt intensifies for the killers. It is not believed the three suspects mentioned by Le Monde were among those arrested.