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France says 2 Frenchmen kidnapped in Niger killed

Two French hostages kidnapped in the Niger capital were killed by their captors despite a rescue attempt by French forces, President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement Saturday.

The hostages were found dead at the Niger-Mali border after French troops there clashed with the kidnappers, killing several of them, a statement from Defense Minister Alain Juppe said.

President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the killings as a "cowardly and barbaric act."

The two French victims, who have not been identified, were kidnapped by four armed men while dining at a restaurant Friday night in the Niger capital, Niamey.

Staff at the main hospital in Niamey confirmed that the bodies of the two Frenchmen had arrived and were being stored in the morgue there.

It was not immediately clear when the clash to free the two French hostages occurred. No one has claimed responsibility for the kindapping and it was not immediately clear whether the al-Qaida offshoot was responsible.

Five other French hostages kidnapped in Niger in September by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, are thought to be held in Mali.

Last July, French troops joined Mauritanian troops in a raid against an AQIM base in Mali. Soon after, the group announced they had killed a 78-year-old French aid worker they were holding captive and said that Sarkozy, by intervening with French troops, had "opened the doors of hell."

It is unclear how many French troops are deployed in the vast desert Sahel region, which spans portions of Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria, where militant groups with ties to al-Qaida are operating. The four countries have set up a joint operation to go after militants with links to al-Qaida. The United States has provided training for the local troops in the area.

Juppe said in a statement that French troops in the region who "coordinated the operation" clashed with the kidnappers at the Niger-Mali border, killing several of them.

"At the end of this action, the lifeless bodies of the two hostages were discovered," the statement said.

Sarkozy had said earlier that the captors were apparently heading to Mali, considered a "zone of refuge," and a unit of the Niger national guard immediately pursued the kidnappers.

Earlier on Saturday, Niger state radio reported that government troops had clashed with the kidnappers after locating them about 17 kilometers (10 miles) west of Ouallam, a remote district not far from the desert country's border with Mali.

The report said Niger troops had located the attackers several hours after midnight and the head of the Nigerian force was seriously wounded during the gunbattle.

Juppe's statement said that when the kidnappers reached the "frontier zone," French troops in the region managed to "intercept the terrorists at the border with Mali and neutralize some of them."

The defense minister's statement did not specify what role the Niger national guard played in the clash or say who ultimately killed the hostages.

The statement from Sarkozy, however, was clearly worded to remove any suggestion they could have been struck by stray fire.

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Associated Press writer Dalatou Mamane contributed to this report from Niamey, Niger.