BAMAKO – At least 35 suspects have been arrested in 48 hours as the hunt intensifies for the killers of two French journalists shot dead in Mali’s rebel-infested north, sources in the west African nation said.
Ghislaine Dupont, 57, and Claude Verlon, 55, were kidnapped and killed by what French officials called “terrorist groups” after interviewing a spokesman for Tuareg separatists in the flash point northeastern town of Kidal on Saturday.
“A few dozen people have been arrested on Malian territory over 48 hours in the course of the investigation related to the murder of the two French journalists,” a source from the Kidal government said.
A member of the Malian security forces confirmed the information, putting the number of people detained “at least 35.”
News of the arrests came after the bodies of the Radio France Internationale (RFI) journalists arrived back in Paris, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announcing that 150 French soldiers had been sent to join 200 troops already in Kidal. He said, however, that France would stick to plans to withdraw two-thirds of the 3,000 soldiers it has in Mali by the end of January.
The Kidal government source described the arrests as an “encouraging” advance in the investigation. “In the car abandoned not far from the crime scene, precious phone numbers were found. This is an important detail,” the source said, without revealing if the numbers had been linked to suspects.
The Malian security source said evidence was “accumulating” and amounted to more than just “clues.” He said investigators were being helped by prisoners jailed for the kidnapping of Frenchmen Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic, ordered by al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In its Wednesday edition, French newspaper Le Monde said in a report that could not be independently verified that three of the four people involved in the RFI journalists’ abduction had been identified, citing Malian and French sources. It also referred to a document found near the bodies.
“They are not among those arrested since Sunday. According to a local source in Kidal, confirmed by a French government source, the discovery of profiles of these three members of the hostage-takers in particular was made possible through a document found in the vehicle near the bodies of the two journalists,” the paper reported.
Le Monde said “this has permitted the identification of a first individual already designated in 2010 as a member of AQIM, and up to two other members of the armed group. It soon became clear that these individuals were known to French intelligence services operating in northern of Mali.”
France sent troops to Mali early this year to drive out Islamists and Tuareg rebels who had seized the country’s vast north after a coup. Paris has always said the mission would be reduced by two-thirds by early next year as a 12,600-strong U.N. peacekeeping force takes over.
Some in Mali have voiced concern over the French drawdown amid an increase in violence, as the country’s continued instability was highlighted this week with the deaths of the RFI journalists.
A French military patrol found Dupont and Verlon’s bodies about 12 km east of Kidal just hours after they were snatched Saturday, lying by a pick-up truck in which they had been abducted. They had been interviewing a spokesman for the main armed separatist group in the region, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
The bodies were flown home early Tuesday from Bamako to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, where their coffins, draped in blue cloth, were presented to some 20 relatives and RFI employees during a private ceremony also attended by French President Francois Hollande.
Journalists from RFI, a publicly funded radio station with a long history of covering Africa that is similar to the BBC World Service, observed a minute’s silence at the station’s headquarters outside Paris. Lawmakers did likewise in a parliamentary sitting Tuesday afternoon.
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 neighbor, Niger.
After meeting with RFI management on Monday, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita vowed the country would “do everything to find the culprits.” A French source said seven investigators, including intelligence and police officials, were sent to Mali to assist in the investigation.