JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- An Al Qaeda-linked militia in northern Mali has claimed responsibility for the killing of two French journalists in the northern town of Kidal.
The Radio France International journalists, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, were seized by gunmen outside the home of a prominent local politician, driven out of town and killed Saturday.
French forces recovered the bullet-riddled bodies just hours after the two were taken hostage. They were found lying next to the vehicle in which they had been abducted.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the Al Qaeda-linked militias that took over most of northern Mali last year, announced that it killed the them in revenge for France's "new crusade" in the country, Mauritanian news agency Sahara Medias (link in Arabic) reported Wednesday.
The news agency said the claim of responsibility came in an email from a militia loyal to Abdelkarim Targui, leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Targui is reported to be close to Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of another Al Qaeda-linked group in the region, Ansar Dine.
“This operation was in response to crimes committed by France against Malians and the work of African and international forces against the Muslims of Azawad," a vast region of northern Mali regarded by the Tuareg people as their homeland, the email reportedly said. "The organization considers that this is the minimum debt that President Francois Hollande and his people will pay for their new crusade."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French television Thursday that the report was being verified, but it seemed plausible that the group killed the two journalists.
Last year's uprising in Mali was initiated by a Tuareg separatist group, the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, which swiftly seized territory and proclaimed the north's independence. But the group was soon outflanked by the violent Islamist militias Ansar Dine, AQIM and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known by its French initials, MUJAO, which imposed a strict form of Islamic sharia law.
France intervened in January at the request of the government when the rebels swept down toward central Mali. French officials warned that unless the rebels were stopped, Europe would have a terrorist haven on its doorstep.
French forces swiftly drove the militia groups out of the major towns but the Al Qaeda-linked groups are still active in the north of the country.
The MNLA has distanced itself from the Al Qaeda-linked militias and remains in control of Kidal, although French troops, African peacekeepers and the Malian army are present in the town.
Dupont and Verlon had just met an MNLA leader, Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, and were about to drive away when gunmen abducted them Saturday, officials said.
Rhissa later said that the armed men told him not to interfere. Malian security forces initially suggested that the MNLA played a role in the kidnapping, because the group effectively controls the town. They also claimed that the kidnapping couldn't have happened outside Rhissa's home without his approval.
The MNLA denied involvement and expressed anger that it has been excluded from efforts to trace the killers.
The France 24 news channel reported that Malian authorities have arrested dozens of suspects. France has sent a team of detectives and intelligence agents to help investigate.
AQIM makes about $3 million from every hostage it releases, the intelligence analysis firm Stratfor said in a report last year. The group raised $89 million from 2003 to 2012, enabling it to pay fighters and buy weapons and ammunition, the report said.
French media reported that the latest ransom paid, for the release of four hostages last month, was about $27 million. However, the French government denied that it had paid the money. Earlier this year, France said it would no longer pay terror groups to free hostages.
The Associated Press reported a theory that Targui didn't order the abduction of the journalists, which is thought to have been carried out by a militant named Baye Ag Bakabo. The militant had fallen out with the AQIM leader after being accused of theft, and was eager to regain favor by bringing in hostages who could be ransomed, the AP said. It's thought that Bakabo's car broke down, and when he called Targui for instructions, he was ordered to kill the twor, the AP reported, citing Malian intelligence.
Fabius, the French foreign minister, said it was possible that the vehicle had broken down.
"What is certain is that this car stopped in the desert, and that was the moment in which our compatriots were assassinated by a hail of bullets, four bullets for one and seven for the other," he said.
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