NIAMEY: At least two suspected Al-Qaeda-linked militants were captured after a failed raid to free two French hostages who were later found dead, a Niger security source told AFP Tuesday.
The alleged members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are being questioned in the Niger capital, the source said, from where the two young Frenchmen were snatched on Friday and later found killed in the desert.
"At least two alleged AQIM fighters were captured and brought back safe and sound to Niamey where they are being interrogated," the source said, without elaborating on the circumstances of their arrest.
Three Niger security forces were killed and four seriously wounded in clashes with the militants who snatched the French childhood friends from a Niamey restaurant, according to Niger officials.
The bodies of Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory, both aged 25, are to be flown back to France on Tuesday, a French MP said, where an autopsy would be carried out.
French Prime Minister Fillon said Monday that the two were killed "in cold blood" by their captors as Niger and French troops tracked them through the desert on the Mali-Niger border in a bid to free the hostages.
He said he believed AQIM was behind the kidnapping. No one has yet claimed responsibility.
De Leocour was a former aid worker who had been due to marry a Niger woman next week, and Delory his best man who had arrived in Niamey for the wedding hours before they were snatched.
France and Mali, where the final assault on the kidnappers took place after they were chased across the border by Niger forces, have both said that AQIM was behind the brazen abduction.
Fillon has said that Niger forces chased the kidnappers as far as the border, then asked the French for aid when they crossed into Mali. With Bamako’s permission French forces launched an assault.
Several kidnappings of foreigners in the arid Sahel region spanning Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria have been carried out by or on behalf of AQIM.
The group is holding five French citizens, a Togolese and a Madagascan, reportedly in northern Mali, after they were seized from Niger’s uranium mining town of Arlit in September.
AQIM in July killed a 78-year-old French hostage who was kidnapped in Niger after six of its militants were killed in a joint French-Mauritanian rescue bid.
France’s foreign ministry has warned its nationals against travel to the entire region where "no place can be considered safe."
The French military has said that a French surveillance aircraft backed up Niger’s armed forces as they chased the kidnappers across the desert.
Fillon has intimated that some of the kidnappers had been captured.
Two French ground troops were slightly injured in the final attack which also involved four French helicopters based in Mali.