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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 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 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 “progressing”.
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 under way in Mali in a bid to “identify a certain number of people in camps”.
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 year.
The United States on Monday condemned acts of violence against journalists and expressed concern over the security situation in the country.
“We've been concerned about the security situation in Mali for some time,” said US State Department deputy spokeswoman 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 make progress”.
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 615 million euros ($830 million) 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 10km 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 on 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. - Sapa-AFP