Execution of French journalists in Mali exposes fragility of peace

Reporter and producer travelling with UN were kidnapped after meeting Tuareg independence leader
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The kidnap and murder of two French radio journalists in northern Mali has brutally exposed the limits of the peace imposed by France’s military campaign against Islamist rebels earlier this year.

Ghislaine Dupont, 57, one of the best known-journalists in Francophone Africa, and her veteran producer, Claude Verlon, 55, were executed in the desert six miles from the town of Kidal, where they had been seized after interviewing a local Tuareg independence leader.

At the end of an emergency cabinet meeting in Paris yesterday, the Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, said that the two journalists were “coldly murdered” by one of “the terrorist groups that we are still fighting, who refuse democracy and elections”. President François Hollande condemned what he described as a “heinous act”. Exactly why the journalists were killed, and who carried out the attack, was still unclear last night.

One of the victims had been shot twice and the other three times. The Toyota pick-up truck into which they had been bundled on Saturday morning was found a few metres away. French officials denied reports that there had been a shootout or that the truck was being pursued by helicopters at the time of the murders.

The journalists, both old hands when it came to reporting in Africa, had been warned not to travel to the remote outpost of Kidal, in the Sahara desert in the far north-east of Mali, which is still a cauldron of tensions between ethnic Arabs and Tuaregs and rival Islamist and secular independence movements.

The town was the birthplace of a Tuareg uprising last year which plunged the country into chaos, which led to a coup in the capital Bamako and the occupation of the northern half of the country by al-Qa’ida-linked militants.

The deaths of the two journalists abruptly ended the rejoicing in France which followed the release last Tuesday of four mining engineers who were held hostage in the mountains of northern Mali for more than three years by members of the militant group al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) who seized them in Niger.

The murders also put into perspective the success of the French military intervention last January which ended radical Islamist control of the north of the country and checked a threatened invasion of the south.

Despite elections in July which in theory returned the whole of Mali to democratic rule, 3,000 French soldiers and just over 6,000 UN troops are still battling radical Islamist groups who make hit-and-run attacks in the sparsely populated north of the country. Ms Dupont and Mr Verlon had worked in Africa for many years for Radio France Internationale (RFI). To many French-speaking Africans, RFI is a vital source of news and Ms Dupont  was one of the station’s best-known, and most respected, voices. The RFI studios in Paris were flooded yesterday with tributes to both the journalists from dozens of African politicians and thousands of ordinary African listeners. “I have lost my sister,” said one Malian politician, Tiébilé Dramé. “She will remain with us in the desert… sleeping the sleep of the righteous.”

The French defence ministry said the two journalists had travelled to Kidal with UN forces. They were seized after an interview with Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, one of the chieftains of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), a Tuareg secular separatist group which once fought alongside al-Qa’ida but has now entered into an uneasy alliance with the government.

“When they left, I heard a strange noise outside. I immediately went out to see and when I opened my door, a turbaned man pointed a gun at me and told me go back inside,” Mr Rhissa told Reuters news agency. Other witnesses said the journalists were forced into a beige Toyota pick-up by four men. Their driver heard the two journalists trying to resist. “It was the last time they were seen,” RFI said.

A land and air pursuit began but French military officials insisted that there had been no shootout. “At no point did our forces come into visual or physical contact with the moving vehicle,” said a French army spokesman, Gilles Jaron. “The bodies were found by a French patrol close to a four-wheel drive pick-up.”

Suspicion initially fell on NMLA and Aqim following the killings, though neither group claimed responsibility. Though Aqim is known to bankroll its operations by kidnapping Westerners, officials in Mali and France were unable to explain why the abductors chose to kill the French journalists instead of holding them for ransom.

Cyril Bensimon, formerly of RFI but now working for Le Monde newspaper, said his two former colleagues knew what risks they should, or should not, take. “Their death poses a brutal question,” he wrote. “Should journalists stay away from dangerous places? If they do, such places are condemned to oblivion. Where there are no witnesses, there are no crimes.”