DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — French troops who found the bodies of two slain French radio journalists in northern Mali followed footprints in the sand near the corpses to hunt their abductors, part of a search that eventually led to five arrests Monday, a Mali military official said. He added that the kidnappers' vehicle had broken down, possibly prompting their decision to kill the captives.
The director of Radio France Internationale confirmed multiple arrests had been made, although French government authorities gave no confirmations. What remained unclear was who the kidnappers were, and whether they had ties to ethnic Tuareg separatists or al-Qaida militants active in the region.
The slayings of Ghislaine Dupont, 57, a senior correspondent, and Claude Verlon, 55, a production technician, stunned France and were an unheard of assault on Western journalists in Mali, where a French-led military operation this year aimed to clear out Islamic extremists who had taken over the vast north.
The veteran journalists were taken Saturday in the troubled northern city of Kidal, just after finishing an interview with a Tuareg rebel leader. Their bodies were found later that day 12 kilometers (7 miles) outside the city, a few yards from what was believed to be the kidnappers' getaway vehicle, the make and model of which were not immediately clear.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the pair were "coldly assassinated," with Dupont shot twice in the chest and Verlon shot three times in the head.
The Malian military officer, who is involved in intelligence work, said the vehicle's steering wheel had broken, possibly due to some sort of accident. Investigators are pursuing the theory that the abductors, once without a functioning vehicle, decided it was easier to shoot the hostages than take them along on foot.
The Malian official could not be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press on the record. Most Westerners abducted in the region have been held for ransom — believed to be a particularly lucrative source of income for Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror network's branch in the area.
At least one of the five people arrested by France's Serval force is believed to be among the four attackers witnesses reported seeing during the abduction, the Malian official said. The suspects have been transferred from Kidal to Gao, where French forces have a base.
RFI director Cecile Megie confirmed Monday that there had been arrests, but offered no details in an interview with the iTele network. Fabius could not confirm the arrests, and France's Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The slain journalists' bodies were taken to Mali's capital, Bamako, over the weekend. On Monday evening, their coffins were placed on stands on an airport tarmac, and Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to pay his respects alongside Dupont and Verlon's editors, including their editor-in-chief, who wiped away the tears she was trying to hide with dark sunglasses.
Keita placed medals on each of their coffins, after having named Dupont and Verlon posthumously to the Order of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor in Mali. The president broke down and sobbed, said Serge Daniel, the local RFI correspondent in an interview late Monday with France 24 television. He said that Keita asked him to pass on a message to Dupont's mother: "Tell her that I grieve for her as if she were my own daughter."
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who arrived in Mali on Monday for a visit, said that he "strongly condemns" the assassination of the two journalists, and that he asks that the killers be brought to justice. Dozens of journalists organized a silent march to voice their anger at the killing of their colleagues. Their remains are expected to arrive in Paris on Tuesday.
Mali has been in turmoil for more than a year, including experiencing a coup and a takeover of the north by various rebel groups. Ethnic Tuareg rebels seized control of much of the north before being pushed out by al-Qaida fighters, who imposed harsh Islamic law, including hacking off the hands of alleged thieves.
France, deeply concerned by al-Qaida's ascendance in its former colony, staged an intervention in January that succeeded in liberating most of the north from the religious radicals. Kidal, however, remains in limbo.
France did nothing to uproot the Tuaregs' National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, and those fighters still move freely in the town. Dupont and Verlon had just finished interviewing the acting head of the NMLA, Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, when they were grabbed outside his house.
The identity of the abductors remained unclear Monday.
Witnesses confirmed that the kidnappers were speaking Tamashek, the Tuareg language. Both the NMLA and Ansar Dine, an extremist group allied with al-Qaida, are predominantly made up of Tamashek-speaking fighters.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which has earned an estimated $89 million from ransoming dozens of foreigners, according to global intelligence group Stratfor, is primarily composed of Arabic speakers. However, it has previously relied on Tuareg groups to grab hostages in northern Mali, who are then sold to the al-Qaida franchise.
A special email address set up by RFI to allow people to send condolences has been flooded with messages from Dupont and Verlon's former listeners. Both had had lengthy careers; Dupont had spent 10 years covering the conflict in Congo.
Malian politician Tiebile Drame, who knew Dupont, wrote a poem for her that was published in Monday's edition of Le Monde newspaper:
"I lost my sister. She came to die here, in my home in Mali, in Africa where the dead do not die. So she will remain with us, in the Sahel, in the steppe, in the savannah, near the river. You will rest in peace, in the sleep of the just."
Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant contributed from Paris.