French, Malian forces hunt suspects behind journalist killings

Reuters
French Foreign Affairs Minister Fabius speaks to journalists following a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris
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French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius speaks to journalists following a meeting at the Elysee …

PARIS (Reuters) - French and Malian forces are questioning suspects in northern Mali to find a small group of militants who carried out the killing last week of two French radio journalists, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Monday.

Claude Verlon, 58 and Ghislaine Dupont, 51, both journalists at RFI radio, were found dead in northern Mali on Saturday after being kidnapped in the city of Kidal.

Their bodies are due to arrive in France later on Monday.

Fabius declined to confirm a report from Europe 1 radio, citing Malian sources, that French forces had arrested five suspects and transferred them to the city of Gao.

"Yesterday, on Sunday, operations were launched to identify a number of people in camps, and they are ongoing," Fabius told RTL radio. "Suspects have been questioned."

Europe 1 reported that the arrests had taken place on Sunday evening in camps where former rebels of the MNLA militant group are being held. France's Defence Ministry was not immediately available for comment.

A Malian gendarme in Gao said he had no information about the arrests or suspects being transferred to the city. French forces declined to comment on reports of arrests.

A French-led military intervention helped to expel most al Qaeda-linked militants from Mali, but the killing on Saturday highlighted security risks and incomplete control of the country by French and Malian forces.

Kidal, the birthplace of a Tuareg uprising last year that plunged the country into chaos, is a desert city where militants have been able to circulate despite small contingents of United Nations and French troops stationed there.

France 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 100 in Tessalit, several hundred kilometres away in the northwest.

The RFI journalists, who each had more than 10 years of experience reporting on African conflicts, were killed by gunfire after being abducted in front of the house of a tribal leader they had just interviewed in Kidal. Verlon's body was found some 12 km from the town shot three times in the head, while Dupont had been shot twice in the chest, Fabius said.

No group had claimed the killings. French officials suspect the involvement of an Islamist militant group, either al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or MUJAO (Movement for Unification and Jihad in West Africa), Fabius said.

"At the moment I'm speaking, there has not yet been any precise identification (of the hostage-takers)," said Fabius, adding it was unclear who carried out the killings.

RFI said that Dupont, a reporter, and Verlon, a radio technician, were working on stories on northern Mali for a special broadcast the station was planning for November 7. It has been canceled.

The kidnapping happened four days after four French hostages kidnapped in Niger by AQIM were released following secret talks with officials from the West African country, ending three years in captivity.

(Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur and Marine Pennetier in Paris and David Lewis in Dakar, editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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