Two journalists for French radio station RFI have been killed after they were kidnapped in the northern town of Kidal in Mali.
Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont were abducted after interviewing a local political leader. Their bodies were found outside the town soon after.
French President Francois Hollande called the killings “despicable”.
The killings come days after France was celebrating the release of four hostages from neighbouring Niger.
Radio France Internationale said Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont were on their second assignment in Kidal, having travelled to the town in July to cover the first round of the presidential election.
This latest incident is part of an upsurge in violent attacks in Mali. It comes after a period of relative calm following the French military intervention in January, which pushed a number of extremist Islamic groups out of the main towns of the north.
I was in Kidal two days ago. It’s a small town but the epicentre of a long-running dispute between ethnic Tuareg desert nomads and most of the rest of the Malian population, which is black African.
This incident took place in broad daylight very close to a base housing several hundred French soldiers and UN peacekeepers.
Despite this serious security presence, a group of armed men seized two foreign journalists outside one of the most sensitive residences in Kidal, drove them away and killed them.
Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, a local official of the MNLA ethnic Tuareg separatist group, said the pair had just left his house after interviewing him when they were kidnapped.
“I heard an unusual noise in the street,” he told France 24. “Their car was parked in front of my house, about 10m from the door.
“I went out to see what was happening. Once I got to the door, I saw a car, a pick-up, parked next to theirs. There was a man on the ground who had a weapon. He immediately pointed it at me and said: “Go back inside, go back in!”
“So I went in, and shortly afterwards they took off with the two journalists. They left in a great hurry.”
He said he did not see how many kidnappers were there, but other sources said four men forced the journalists into a beige truck which was then driven off into the surrounding desert.
One report said the kidnappers’ vehicle was being pursued by the security forces; a French attack helicopter was seen above Kidal a few hours after the abduction occurred.
A spokesman for France’s armed forces said its troops never had any visual or physical contact with the gunmen following the abduction.
Two helicopters flew over the area after a French patrol found the journalists’ bodies on a desert track some 10km (six miles) to the east of Kidal, Col Gilles Jarron said.
The French journalists were interviewing a political leader before their abduction
Nicolas Champeaux, a journalist with RFI’s African service, said he and his colleagues were “devastated” by what had happened.
He called 57-year-old Ghislaine Dupont a “relentless, tenacious reporter” with a great sense of humour who was “always encouraging us to dig more, to look out for more, to get closer to the action on the front line but also to investigate”.
Deaths of journalists
- 42 journalists killed in 2013
- 1,009 journalists killed since 1992
- 596 journalists murdered with impunity since 1992
- 456 journalists in exile since 2008
Source: Committee to Protect Journalists
Sound technician Claude Verlon, 55, was a true professional who was “fun and interesting to work with”. “He was also used to difficult areas” and “loved challenges”, Mr Champeaux said.
Confirming their deaths, the French foreign ministry said it would “in conjunction with the Malian authorities, make every effort to find out as soon as possible about the circumstances of their death”.
A statement from President Hollande’s office said he “expresses his indignation over this despicable act”, adding that he is meeting ministers on Sunday to discuss the incident.
A spokesman for Mali’s government said it condemned “in the strongest terms this barbaric and cowardly act” and “reiterates its determination to continue to fight against terrorism and organised crime.”
Their deaths bring to 42 the number of journalists around the world killed so far in 2013.
The BBC’s international development correspondent Mark Doyle, who was in Kidal just two days ago, describes it as a small place with a population of some 10,000.
- 2011: Tuareg fighters leave Libya after Gaddafi toppled and take up arms at home in Mali
- March-April 2012: Separatist and Islamist groups seize control of northern Mali
- Jan 2013: French-led forces oust rebels from towns
- June 2013: Government and separatist rebels sign peace deal
- July 2013: Elections held to reunite Mali
He says it is at the epicentre of a political dispute between ethnic Tuareg nomads and the rest of the population of Mali, who are black Africans.
There are 200 French troops and 200 UN peacekeepers as well as a Malian army base in Kidal.
It is extremely surprising, our correspondent says, that such an attack could have happened in broad daylight under the noses of so many troops.
Earlier this week, four Frenchmen were released three years after being kidnapped by al-Qaeda-linked gunmen targeting French firms operating a uranium mine in neighbouring Niger.
The hostages had been held in the deserts of northern Mali.
Jubilation at their release was tempered by speculation that the French government had paid as much as a 20m euros (£17m; $26m) ransom.
Hostage-taking has become a big money-making business by extremist groups in the Sahara, say observers.
Much of it goes towards buying the means to carry out more kidnappings: Procuring four-wheel drive jeeps, fuel, weapons and GPS systems, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner reports.
France led an operation to oust Islamist rebels from northern Mali – its former colony – earlier this year, sending in thousands of troops.
It handed over responsibility for security to a UN force in the summer.
But French troops are still in the country helping to prevent a resurgence of militant activity in the region.