PARIS – A purported spokesman for al-Qaida's North Africa branch claimed responsibility Thursday for kidnapping two French nationals in Niger who later died during a failed rescue attempt.
Salah Abou Mohamed, speaking to Al-Jazeera television, said fighters from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, abducted the two Frenchmen from Niger's capital on Jan. 7.
France has already said it believed al-Qaida was behind the kidnapping of Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory. De Leocour was to marry a local woman a week later, and Delory was to be his best man.
The two were abducted by four armed men in a restaurant in Niamey, the Niger capital, on Friday night. Their bodies were found Saturday at the Niger-Mali border after a skirmish involving forces from French and Niger, officials said.
French officials have said they believe the hostages were executed as rescuers moved in. The Paris prosecutor, Jean-Claude Marin, told reporters Thursday that autopsies on the two hostages showed no sign that bullets used by French forces killed them. The autopsies so far have not been able to determine when they died, he said.
The AQIM spokesman said only that the two Frenchmen were killed in the fighting but provided no other details on how they died. He claimed that two French special forces members were killed and that 25 Niger officers were injured.
Those numbers don't match the figures released by the militaries involved. France's Defense Ministry said two members of French forces were lightly injured and several militants were killed. Niger said three of its paramilitary soldiers were killed and four wounded.
The al-Qaida offshoot AQIM operates in Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger and has kidnapped more than a dozen foreigners over the past several years.
Marin told reporters the two men were kidnapped from the restaurant "by chance," because they were sitting closest to the door.
He described the long overnight chase after the kidnappers. At one point, the kidnappers fled in a Niger military truck, and took Niger officers hostage.
At the final shootout in the morning, two vehicles were burned and a third showed the impact of bullets used by the attackers and by French forces, Marin said.
Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Pierre-Antoine Souchard in Paris contributed to this report.