NIAMEY // Two Frenchmen kidnapped at gunpoint by possible Al-Qaeda-linked militants from a restaurant in central Niamey have been found dead after a desert rescue operation by the Niger military, officials said.
One of the dead men was reportedly a former aid worker who had been due to marry a local woman next week and the other a friend who had just arrived in Niamey to attend the ceremony when they were snatched late Friday.
French Defence Minister Alain Juppe confirmed the deaths previously announced by a source in the Niger military, which had chased the kidnappers across the desert towards Mali, fighting at least one gun-battle with them.
"When they (the kidnappers) arrived at the border zone, the operation was launched, coordinated with French elements in the region, allowing (Niger's National Guard) to intercept the terrorists on the border with Mali and neutralise some of them," Juppe said in a statement.
"At the end of the operation, the lifeless bodies of the two hostages were discovered," he said.
Juppe offered his condolences to the families of the hostages, and praised the Niger government for its efforts to free the two men.
A military source in northern Mali said that the kidnapping may have been carried out on behalf of an Al-Qaeda cell responsible for other abductions in the vast desert region spanning Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria.
"We think it is intermediaries who have kidnapped the two Frenchmen and they are trying to hand them over to fundamentalists and we are doing everything to prevent that," the source said during the search operation.
Niger government spokesman Laouali Dan Dah said earlier that Niger troops had intercepted the kidnappers before dawn on Saturday just north of Ouallam, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Mali border, but held off for fear of injuring the hostages.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday again advised French citizens to stay out of the region until security conditions improved.
Dah Dah said it was too soon to say if the kidnappers were linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which prowls the arid and isolated zone.
The group in July killed a 78-year-old French hostage three months after he was kidnapped in Niger, in revenge for the killing of six comrades in a failed Mauritanian-French rescue raid.
In Friday's raid, staff and diners told AFP that gunmen burst into the Niamey city centre restaurant and forced the Frenchmen to follow them, brandishing assault rifles.
They were taken to a four-by-four vehicle with Benin plates in which other armed men were waiting and then driven off at speed.
Restaurant manager Soumaila Kima said one of the men snatched was "a regular customer who lived in Niamey."
"He was dining with friends and they were talking about the wedding planned for January 15 with a woman from Niger."
Another French customer, who declined to be identified, said the kidnappers "seemed to know who they were looking for. We were seated just beside the other two but they ignored us."
A worker at the restaurant, which is owned by a former member of the French military, described the kidnapping.
"When they came in they fell on the two Frenchmen and they shouted, 'You and you, follow us'. In their rush, one of the attackers lost his turban," he said.
"The Frenchmen tried to resist but finally they pushed them into the car and they drove off quickly," he said, asking not to be named.
"I took my car and I chased them for about a kilometre, but as they were moving at great speed and with the lights out, I couldn't catch them."
The abduction echoed a raid in September on the mining town of Arlit during which five French nationals, along with a Togolese and a Madagascan were kidnapped. They are now believed to be held in Mali by AQIM.
Dan Dah said the kidnappers reportedly spoke Arabic, French and Hawza.
"It's too soon to establish similarities with the modus operandi of this latest kidnapping and that in Arlit (in September)."
In November, AQIM head Abdelmalek Droukdel, alias Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud, said in a message on Al-Jazeera television that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden alone could negotiate the release of the seven foreigners snatched in September.
French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie rejected any suggestion that France would negotiate their freedom with bin Laden or pull its troops out of Afghanistan.