PARIS (AP) — Two French journalists kidnapped and killed in northern Mali were shot to death and their bodies were found near the car that sped them to their doom, French foreign minister said Sunday.
Laurent Fabius sketched out the few known details of the killings Saturday of Ghislaine Dupont, 51, and Claude Verlon, 58, seasoned journalists who worked for Radio France Internationale. Their deaths triggered questions over the lack of a centralized authority in parts of northern Mali where both U.N. and French troops are based.
Fabius spoke after a meeting of key ministers with the French president, Francois Hollande, who had ordered a military intervention in Mali in January to oust al-Qaida and other radical groups from the north, deeply implicating France in the destiny of its former west African colony.
The journalists were abducted Saturday by an armed group after an interview with a Tuareg rebel leader in the town of Kidal, which remains under the de facto rebel control despite the presence of French and U.N. troops, Fabius said. Their bodies were found 12 kilometers (8 miles) from Kidal and "several meters" from the car.
The head of RFI, Marie-Christine Saragosse, who also met with Hollande, said the lifeless bodies were found 80 meters (87 feet) from the kidnappers' car.
Fabius described the killings as "odious, abject and revolting."
He said one journalist had been hit with three bullets, the other two — but the car showed no impact from bullets.
A person who saw their bodies, and four Malian officials briefed on the matter said Saturday that their throats had been slit.
"Action was immediately taken to try to find the killers," Fabius said. He did not provide details.
With Mali in turmoil, it was not clear who was responsible for the slaying. Both Tuareg separatists of National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, known as NMLA, and al-Qaida-linked fighters operate in the area.
The NMLA rebels launched their latest rebellion in 2012. Those rebels were later chased out by al-Qaida's fighters in the region but have returned to prominence in Kidal in recent months.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has bankrolled its operations by kidnapping Westerners, and officials in both Mali and France could not explain why the abductors chose to kill the journalists instead of holding them for ransom.
The killings came four days after France rejoiced at the liberation of four citizens, captured in neighboring Niger three years ago and found in northwest Mali.
"The killers are those we are fighting, that is the terrorist groups who refuse democracy and refuse elections," Fabius said.
Mali, which recently held presidential elections, is to hold a parliamentary vote later this month. The journalists had traveled to Kidal for a special program on Mali ahead of the voting.
Saragosse, who heads RFI and France 24 TV, was traveling to Bamako, the capital of Mali, on Sunday to accompany the return of the bodies.
She told reporters after meeting with Hollande that the journalists — both long-time RFI employees familiar with challenging terrain — had been accompanied from Bamako to Kidal, some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) north, by U.N. troops present since the end of the French intervention. They were taken to the town hall, "the safest place." It was not clear if the pair was accompanied on interviews.
RFI said on its website that French forces still present in Mali had refused to take the two to Kidal, whereas the U.N. troops still transports journalists.
A U.N. spokesman said its troops have not noticed the car used in the kindapping in any of the seven checkpoints in and around the city manned by them.
"These 7 checkpoints are at major transit locations and the vehicle of the kidnappers was not noticed at any of these checkpoints," said Olivier Salgado, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Mali. "You need to put this in the context of the desert. This is a place with dunes. They must have used a non-official road or path."
Lt. Col. Oumar Sy, a Malian officer stationed in Kidal and involved in the investigation, said that everything pointed to the NMLA.
"We are in a town that is in the de facto hands of the NMLA. We learn that these poor people are taken in front of the house of an NMLA leader. No one lifts a finger to help them. What conclusion would you come to?" he said.
Dupont and Verlon had worked at RFI since the 1980s, and were described by their editors as seasoned journalists. Dupont, a senior correspondent, spent the bulk of her career in Africa. "She was a sniffer dog, who was never content with the information she had. She always wanted to dig and dig some more," her colleague Nicolas Champeaux recalled.
Verlon, a production technician, was a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and was passionate about Africa, where he had covered numerous assignments, according to RFI, which put a black band across its red logo.
Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.
Follow Ganley on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/Elaine_Ganley
Follow Callimachi on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/rcallimachi