Two young Frenchmen kidnapped at gunpoint by suspected Al-Qaeda-linked militants from a restaurant in central Niamey died during a Franco-Niger rescue bid in the desert.
One of the dead men was a former aid worker who had been due to marry a local woman next week; the other was his childhood friend, who had just arrived in Niamey to attend the ceremony when they were snatched late Friday.
Their local MP named them as Antoine de Leocour, who had worked in Niger, and Vincent Delory, both 25, who had grown up together on the same street in the small northern French town of Linselles.
|People are seen here outside 'Le Toulousain' restaurant in Niamey.|
French Defence Minister Alain Juppe confirmed the deaths after they were announced by a source in the Niger military, which had chased the kidnappers across the desert towards Mali, fighting at least one gun-battle with them.
A statement from Juppe said of the kidnappers: "When they arrived at the border zone, the operation was launched, coordinated with French elements in the region, allowing (Niger's National Guard) to intercept the terrorists on the border with Mali and neutralise some of them.
"At the end of the operation, the lifeless bodies of the two hostages were discovered," he said.
A French military source told AFP they had helped track the kidnappers using a surveillance aircraft, and that French special forces had also been deployed on the ground.
There had been two clashes between troops and the abductors, the source added. In the first, the head of a detachment of the Niger national guard had been injured.
In a second clash, French army special forces were deployed. Two French soldiers were slightly wounded and "several" of the kidnappers were killed, the source added.
Juppe offered his condolences to the families of the hostages, and praised the Niger government for its efforts to free the two men.
The dead men's local MP, Christian Vanneste, said: "Vincent's father... didn't want his son to go there. His son had no reason to go, except for his friend's marriage."
According to French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, Vincent Delory was to have been his friend's best man.
"Antoine worked for an NGO in Niger. That's why he was getting married in Niger. He invited his friends to the wedding," the MP added.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned "a barbarous and cowardly act."
Earlier Saturday, Niger government spokesman Laouali Dan Dah said Niger's troops had intercepted the kidnappers before dawn, 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Mali border, but had held off for fear of harming the hostages.
A military source in northern Mali said the kidnapping may have been carried out on behalf of an Al-Qaeda cell responsible for other abductions in the vast desert region spanning Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria.
But Dan Dah said it was too soon to say if the kidnappers were linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which prowls the arid and isolated zone.
The group in July killed a 78-year-old French hostage three months after he was kidnapped in Niger, in revenge for the killing of six comrades in a failed Mauritanian-French rescue raid.
In Friday's raid, staff and diners told AFP that gunmen burst into the Niamey city centre restaurant and forced the Frenchmen to follow them, brandishing assault rifles.
They were taken to a four-by-four vehicle with Benin plates in which other armed men were waiting and then driven off at speed.
Restaurant manager Soumaila Kima said De Leocour was a regular customer.
"He was dining with friends and they were talking about the wedding planned for January 15 with a woman from Niger."
Another French customer, who declined to be identified, said the kidnappers "seemed to know who they were looking for. We were seated just beside the other two but they ignored us."
A worker at the restaurant, which is owned by a former member of the French military, described the kidnapping.
"When they came in they fell on the two Frenchmen and they shouted, 'You and you, follow us'. In their rush, one of the attackers lost his turban," he said.
"The Frenchmen tried to resist but finally they pushed them into the car and they drove off quickly," he said, asking not to be named.
In September, gunmen raided the mining town of Arlit and abducted five French nationals, along with a Togolese and a Madagascan. They are now believed to be held in Mali by AQIM.