Image: Car outside the Toulousain restaurant
Djibo Tagaza  /  AP
Cars sit parked outside the front gate of the Toulousain restaurant, where witnesses say two French nationals were kidnapped at gunpoint late Friday by turbaned men, in Niamey, Niger. A witness was dining inside when he says two men walked in, pulled out guns and told the French citizens to follow them. Outside, he says, two more men were waiting and they forced them into a truck and sped off.
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updated 1/9/2011 5:18:56 PM ET 2011-01-09T22:18:56

France's defense minister said Sunday that al-Qaida linked militants were most likely behind the kidnapping of two French nationals in the west African nation of Niger, who were found dead following a rescue attempt that involved French and Niger troops.

Alain Juppe also defended the decision to launch the rescue mission, saying that doing nothing would have signaled to the kidnappers "that in the end France doesn't fight terrorism."

He said there was no conclusive proof that the two 25-year-old friends were killed by their captors, but "everything leads us to believe ... that they were executed," by their kidnappers.

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President Nicolas Sarkozy has blamed kidnappers for the deaths of Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory. De Leocour was to marry a local woman in a week, and Delory was going 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 French forces in which some of the kidnap gang were killed, officials said.

Juppe refused to say what effect the deaths would have on France's efforts to secure the release of five other French nationals, kidnapped in September in Niger and believed to be held in neighboring Mali. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has claimed responsibility for that kidnapping.

Questions are being asked whether the French intervention sealed the young men's fate, and whether France should play an active role in hunting down terrorists in the vast desert region known as Sahel that spans portions of Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria. The four countries have set up a joint operation to go after militants with links to al-Qaida.

A number of French troops are also deployed in the Sahel region and the United States has provided training for the local troops in the area.

Sarkozy reaffirmed on Sunday France's determination to keep up the fight against terrorism.

"We will never accept the diktat of terrorists," Sarkozy said during a during a visit to Guadeloupe, a French Caribbean region.

There was no claim of responsibility for the latest kidnappings.

Juppe, however, said that "given the circumstances ... there is little doubt" it was AQIM. The local offshoot of the terror network, which grew out of an Algerian Islamist insurgency movement, is a feared force in the Sahel.

Niger state radio reported Saturday that government troops had clashed with the kidnappers after locating them about 17 kilometers (10 miles) west of Ouallam, a remote district not far from the desert country's border with Mali. The report said the head of the Niger force was seriously wounded during the gunbattle.

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Juppe said Niger authorities then asked France to step in with its force based in Niamey and "in this second skirmish it was French forces that intervened."

Military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said that French troops involved in the operation were rappelled from helicopters once the kidnappers were spotted.

The mayor of northern French village of Linselles, where both victims came from, said that de Leocour, who had lived in Niger for two years working with a non-governmental organization, was to marry a woman from Niger next Saturday. His longtime friend, Delory, was going to be his best man.

"The village is doubly shocked," Mayor Jacques Remory told The Associated Press. "First by learning that the two people kidnapped were from Linselles and second when (we) were told they were dead."

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Virginie Maecker in Lille contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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