France said the entire Sahel region could no longer be considered safe for its citizens after two Frenchmen were killed in Niger by suspected al Qaeda militants, and on Sunday told its nationals to avoid the region.
The pair were found dead, apparently killed by their kidnappers on Saturday, after French special forces joined a failed attempt to rescue them in the African state.
“French nationals should be extremely vigilant and careful at all times,” the foreign ministry said in a statement posted on its website. “In view of the terrorism threat on the region, no area can be considered safe any longer.”
The Sahel, which spans from Africa’s Atlantic coast in the west and the Red Sea in the east, is usually considered to include Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Northern Nigeria, Reuters reports.
The two victims were abducted from a bar, bringing to eight the number of French nationals snatched in Niger since last April. They were the first to be seized in the capital Niamey, far from the lawless desert where Islamist militants, rebels and bandits flourish.
Analysts say the kidnapping bore the hallmark of an operation by groups linked to al Qaeda in the region.
“It is likely … I think we can say that,” French Armed Forces Spokesman Thierry Burkhard said on Sunday when asked on television station i-Tele whether the kidnappers belonged to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
HOSTAGES OF CHOICE
Speaking on BFM TV Axel Poniatowski president of parliament’s foreign affairs commission said French nationals could no longer deem the region as a tourism destination like Morocco or Tunisia and should no longer travel there.
“We have the ban on the veil, a secular society and a big presence of firms in the region, so all these reasons mean French hostages are of choice (to be targeted).”
Last July another French hostage, Michel Germaneau, 78, was killed by AQIM after a failed French rescue mission in Mali following his abduction in Niger.
A high ranking Nigerien military official told Reuters the two hostages had probably been executed before a confrontation with French and Niger forces and the kidnappers had begun, as the hostages’ bodies were found away from the clash area.
“The kidnappers were killed in their car … they were the only people in the car at the time of the clash so the execution happened beforehand,” he said, adding that all the abductors had been killed.
Burkhard did not give give details on how many kidnappers were involved or whether they had all been killed.
AQIM, which operates across West and North Africa’s vast Sahara desert, is holding another five French citizens, some of whom work for mining giant Areva. They were among a group of seven foreigners kidnapped from the northern mining town of Arlit in September last year.