Two French hostages have been killed in Niger after being abducted late Friday in Niger’s capital.
The French defense ministry says the hostages were killed during a gun battle with their kidnappers along Niger’s border with Mali.
In a written statement, Defense Minister Alain Juppe says several of the kidnappers were overpowered in an operation by Niger’s national guard that was coordinated with French troops in the region. After the fighting the two hostages were found dead.
He says the kidnappers were then chased across the border into Mali where there was more fighting.
Juppe offered his condolences to the families of the men, who have not been named, and thanked Niger’s government for its work to free them.
The men were abducted by four kidnappers with automatic weapons in a popular restaurant in downtown Niamey late Friday. Witnesses say it appears the kidnappers knew who they were looking for and forced the men into a four-by-four vehicle.
A spokesman for Niger’s military government says security forces observed the vehicle before dawn Saturday about 100 kilometers from the Mali border but did not open fire for fear of injuring the hostages.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy Saturday again advised French citizens to stay out of the region until security improves.
Five French nationals along with two engineers from Togo and Madagascar were abducted from the site of a huge French uranium mine in Niger in September. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for that abduction and says it intends to stop what it calls the French exploitation of natural resources in the Sahel.
Last July, the al-Qaida affiliated group executed a French hostage who was kidnapped in Niger after French and Mauritanian troops killed six suspected terrorists during an unsuccessful rescue attempt.
There has been no immediate claim of responsibility for Friday’s kidnapping in Niamey. Security forces in Niger say they are still investigating the identity of the abductors.