JOHANNESBURG, South Africa--Two French journalists were kidnapped and killed in northern Mali on Saturday, just days after four French hostages were freed in Niger.
The French Foreign Ministry confirmed the deaths of Ghislaine Dupont, 51, and Claude Verlon, 58, who authorities said were kidnapped by four armed men Saturday afternoon in the town of Kidal.
The two journalists from Radio France International had just interviewed Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, a leader with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as MNLA, a Tuareg separatist group.
Their bodies were found about 10 miles outside Kidal. French President Francois Hollande described the killings as despicable.
France intervened in Mali in January after the north of the country fell to Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias and Tuareg rebels who imposed a strict version of sharia, or Islamic law. The French military managed to drive the militias from the major northern towns within weeks, but insecurity persists in northern Mali, particularly in the Kidal region, close to the Algerian border.
The RFI website cited Ambeiry Ag Rhissa saying he heard a noise in the street after the journalists left. He said he opened his gate and saw the journalists being taken away in a beige vehicle. He said he stayed in his house after the gunmen threatened him and told him to stay indoors.
"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," Reuters reported.
RFI said the journalists' driver was pushed to the ground as the two journalists protested.
Journalists and colleagues gathered outside the RFI studio in Paris, many of them in tears, according to France 24.
Dupont had covered Africa since 1986, according to RFI. Both had worked extensively in conflict zones.
No group claimed responsibility for the killings. The journalists' throats had been cut.
A Malian military officer involved in the investigation, Lt. Col. Oumar Sy, told the Associated Press that the MNLA appeared to be responsible.
"The town is where the rebel group is headquartered, and the journalists were taken in front of the home of the group's acting head," he said. "We are in a town that is in the de facto hands of the MNLA. We learn that these poor people are taken in front of the house of an MNLA leader. No one lifts a finger to help them. What conclusion would you come to?"
There was controversy after the release of four French hostages in recent days, with speculation that a multimillion-dollar ransom was paid to the Al Qaeda-linked militants in Niger. French media reported a ransom of more than $27 million was paid to release the hostages.
The reported payment came after Hollande said his government would not pay money to free hostages. It was not clear whether the reported ransom was paid by the energy company the men worked for or the French government.
Critics say paying such groups huge sums of money encourages kidnapping and fuels terrorist groups who have netted millions of dollars from kidnappings in recent years.
At least seven other French people are being held hostage in the Sahel region of Africa.