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NIAMEY/PARIS (Reuters) - France said two of its nationals were found dead, apparently executed by their kidnappers, after French special forces joined a failed attempt to rescue them on Saturday in the African state of Niger.
It was the second abortive French hostage rescue since July in the arid Sahel region where Paris says it is at war with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the North African arm of Osama bin Laden's network.
"At this stage, everything makes us believe that they were executed by the terrorists," Armed Forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.
He said the special forces, sent to the region in September after a previous kidnapping, coordinated the rescue attempt with Niger's forces after spotting the abductors from one of their surveillance aircraft. Three kidnappers were killed, he added.
The two victims were abducted from a bar overnight, bringing to eight the number of French nationals snatched in the African country since last April. They were the first to be seized in the capital Niamey, far from the lawless desert where Islamist militants, rebels and bandits flourish.
"The head of state condemns this barbaric and cowardly act," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement. "Rather than weakening our resolve, this heinous crime strengthens our commitment to fight this barbaric terrorism."
It was not immediately clear who carried out the latest kidnapping, but security analyst Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, a former Malian defence minister, said it bore the hallmark of an operation by groups linked to al Qaeda in the region.
"This is an escalation...It is a sign that they are determined to attack states and Western interests to create a zone of insecurity," he told Reuters.
Former French counter-terrorism chief Louis Capriol predicted more such attacks. "They are sending a strong message. We can hit you when and where we want," he said.
French media named the dead men as Antoine De Leocour, working for charity Aide Medicale Internationale, and his friend Vincent Delory, who had just arrived in Niamey to attend De Leocour's wedding. Both were 25 and from Linselles, northeast France.
A Nigerien government source told Reuters their bodies had been flown back to Niamey.
Last July another French hostage, Michel Germaneau, 78, was killed by AQIM after a failed French rescue mission in Mali following his abduction in Niger.
Search operations were launched on Saturday after witnesses said several men wearing turbans entered the "Toulousain" bar in Niamey and took the two men away in a car.
"Four men wearing turbans armed with automatic weapons entered the bar. Three went straight to the table the Frenchmen were at while the other one remained at the entrance," said Mamane Rabiou Aboubacar, who was in the bar at the time.
"The attackers spoke in Arabic and then forced the Frenchmen to go with them."
AQIM, which operates across West and North Africa's vast Sahara desert, is holding another five French citizens, some of whom work for mining giant Areva. They were among a group of seven foreigners kidnapped from the northern mining town of Arlit in September last year.
Loic Garnier, head of the counter-terrorism section at France's Interior Ministry, told Reuters earlier this week AQIM remained the single greatest danger to French interests and citizens at home and abroad.
Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar, Yann Le Guernigou in Port-au-Prince and Patrick Vignal in Paris; editing by Mark Trevelyan