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Paris opens probe into 2 hostage deaths in Niger

Paris anti-terrorism investigators have gone to Niger to probe the deaths of two French hostages killed amid a rescue operation led by French special forces, a judicial official said Monday.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has said the abductors killed the two 25-year-olds during the weekend rescue operation in the west African country. However, questions remain about what happened, and investigators will be probing the exact circumstances.

Sarkozy has made clear that France's determination to fight terrorism remains intact. France will have a sure partner in Niger whose foreign minister said Monday that the country is determined to fight terrorism "in all its forms."

Defense Minister Alain Juppe says that "there is little doubt" that the kidnappers were linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which is currently holding five other French citizens. Juppe was meeting in Niger on Monday with authorities there as well as the approximately 1,700-strong French community.

The bodies of Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory were found Saturday by French troops dropped into the desert region by helicopter. The two men had been kidnapped Friday evening by gunmen from a restaurant in Niamey, the Niger capital. De Leocour was to marry a local woman in a week and Delory was in Niger to act as best man.

On Monday, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that according to his information, the kidnappers, "when they saw themselves being followed, coldly eliminated the hostages." He said, however, that a thorough investigation would be conducted.

Guy Teissier, the head of the defense commission of the French National Assembly, said after a meeting between lawmakers and Fillon on Monday that the AQIM is "in the midst of an arm-wrestling match" with the French authorities. "And (it is) settling into this match for the long haul to manipulate public opinion," he added.

"They should know that today there will simply be an armed response to attacks, or at least kidnappings, which are cowardly and barbaric," said Teissier.

He described the weekend kidnapping as "bold," adding that the region the men were kidnapped in was not considered a danger zone by the French Foreign Ministry.

Several kidnappers were killed during the confrontation, the French and officials in Niger have said.

A French special forces member was injured. On the Niger side, three troops, including an officer, also were killed and four were wounded, government spokesman Mahaman Laouli Dan Dah said on national television Sunday.

It was unclear whether French and Niger troops worked together in the final clash after Niger's national guard skirmished with the kidnappers about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Niamey, the Niger spokesman said.

Niger Foreign Minister Toure Aminata Djibrilla Maiga said Monday during a visit to neighboring Burkina Faso that her country would fight terrorism "with the help of the population."

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Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Jamey Keaten in Paris, and Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso contributed to this report.