Bamako - Mali paid homage to two French journalists shot
dead in its rebel-infested northern desert and vowed to hunt down their killers,
as a plane left capital Bamako carrying their bodies back home.
The Air France flight carrying the coffins of Ghislaine
Dupont, 57, and Claude Verlon, 55, took off from Bamako airport shortly before
midnight on Monday and was expected to arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport in
Paris early on Tuesday morning.
The two journalists working for Radio France Internationale
(RFI) were kidnapped and killed by what French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius
called "terrorist groups" in the flashpoint north-eastern town of
Kidal on Saturday.
"We will do everything to find the culprits,"
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita vowed as he met with members of the RFI
management in the capital of the west African nation on Monday.
"Today even, we have opened a criminal investigation
into the killings and tonight French investigators are expected here to work
hand-in-hand with their Malian counterparts," he added.
The victims' bodies were flown to Bamako on Sunday night,
where hundreds of Malian reporters and RFI colleagues marched through the
streets in silent tribute.
"We organised this silent march to say 'never again' -
the perpetrators of this crime must be punished," said Makan Kone,
president of the capital's media association, the Bamako Press House.
Keita later attended a ceremony at Bamako airport with
several government ministers in honour of the journalists, saying he was in
contact with French leader Francois Hollande and the investigation was
'A dozen suspects' detained
The president said he thought of Dupont, a correspondent
with years of experience reporting on Africa, as his "own daughter".
A police source in Gao, the main city in northern Mali, said
"a dozen suspects" had been detained but a source close to French
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denied there had been any arrests.
The killings have shaken France, which just days ago was
celebrating the return of four hostages who had been held for three years after
being abducted in Mali's neighbour Niger.
Fabius told RTL radio on Monday that "operations"
were underway in Mali in a bid to "identify a certain number of people in
The deaths have highlighted the ongoing security threat just
three weeks ahead of parliamentary elections supposed to mark the completion of
Mali's transition back to democracy following a military coup in March last
The United States on Monday condemned acts of violence
against journalists and expressed concern over the security situation in the
"We've been concerned about the security situation in
Mali for some time," said US State Department deputy spokesperson Marie
Harf, adding that the deadly attack on the journalists "just underscores
how dangerous it can be. And we'll keep working with our partners on this to
Mali is 'most fragile country'
There has been an upsurge in violence in the former French
colony, where Paris sent troops early this year to drive out Islamists and
Tuareg rebels who had seized the country's vast north after the coup.
A UN peacekeeping force is eventually expected to comprise
about 12 600 troops and police but Malian soldiers have nevertheless voiced
concerns over a planned drawdown of French troops.
Paris was due to reduce its deployment of 3 000 troops to 1 000
by the end of January but government spokesman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem signalled
that the decision might be reversed in light of the journalists' deaths.
"We are probably going to have to further strengthen
our presence to be able to counter terrorism," Vallaud-Belkacem said.
Meanwhile the European Union pledged $830m to Bamako as part
of a five-billion-euro package of fresh aid for Sahel countries, describing
Mali as the "most fragile country" in the region.
A French military patrol found Dupont and Verlon's bodies
about 12km east of Kidal just hours after they were snatched on Saturday, lying
by a pick-up truck in which they had been abducted.
They had travelled to Kidal to interview a spokesman for
Tuareg separatist group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad
(MNLA), and were kidnapped outside his home, according to their employer.
The MNLA described the murders as "heinous" and
complained it had been denied the opportunity to help find the killers, despite
being the main rebel group in the area.
The MNLA announced late Monday that it was merging with two
other rebel groups, the Tuareg High Council for the Unity of Azawad and the
Arab Movement of Azawad, to form a united front in peace talks with the
authorities in Bamako.