Two French journalists snatched by gunmen in the northern Malian town of Kidal on Saturday have been killed, the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
“Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, journalists at RFI, were found dead in Mali,” the ministry said. “They had been kidnapped by armed gunmen in Kidal.”
A local prefect, sources from the Tuareg separatist group MNLA and Malian security services had told Reuters earlier in the day two reporters had been kidnapped and then killed on the outskirts of the town.
“A few minutes after a pursuit began for the abductors of the two French, we were informed that their bodies were found riddled with bullets outside the town,” said Paul-Marie Sidibe, prefect of the town of Tinzawaten, who is based in Kidal.
A senior MNLA military official also said the bodies had been recovered outside Kidal. A Mali security source said the journalists were killed about 12 km (8 miles) outside the town.
Both journalists, from French radio station RFI, were seized after they interviewed Kidal resident Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, a local official with the MNLA Tuareg separatist group.
“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,” Rhissa told Reuters by telephone.
“I could not see how many men were there,” he said.
RFI confirmed in a news bulletin that Dupont and Verlon were kidnapped in front of Rhissa’s house after the interview.
“They were put into a beige four-wheel drive vehicle and the kidnappers fired shots in the air and told Rhissa to go home,” RFI said in the report.
“The driver heard the two reporters protest and resist. It was the last time they were seen,” RFI said.
Earlier this week, four Frenchmen were released three years after being kidnapped by al-Qaeda-linked gunmen targeting French firms operating a uranium mine in neighbouring Niger. The hostages had been held in the deserts of northern Mali.
Jubilation at their release was tempered by speculation that the French government had made as much as a 20m euros (£17m; $26m) ransom.
Hostage-taking has become a big money-making business by extremist groups in the Sahara, say observers.
Much of it goes towards buying the means to carry out more kidnappings: Procuring four-wheel drive jeeps, fuel, weapons and GPS systems, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner reports.
France led an operation to oust Islamist rebels from northern Mali – its former colony – earlier this year, sending in thousands of troops.
It handed over responsibility for security to a UN force in the summer.
But French troops are still in the country helping to prevent a resurgence of militant activity in the region