French soldiers join hunt for hostages
Hombori - French soldiers joined Mali's army on Friday in the hunt for two French geologists who were kidnapped by an armed gang this week.
The two were seized from their hotel in the eastern village of Hombori near the border with Niger early on Thursday, in an assault bearing the hallmark of al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants.
An AFP journalist saw about a dozen of the French soldiers near Hombori.
They had been despatched from a nearby town where they are training elite Mali soldiers to join the local army in trying to track down the captives.
According to documents seen on Friday by the journalist, the names of the two French men are Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic. They had arrived on Tuesday night, and the hotel manager put their names on file.
The same names were on company documents of their employer, Mande Construction Immobiliere, also seen by AFP. The two men had been sent by the firm to take soil samples in the Hombori region where it plans to build a cement factory.
Lazarevic, described by a witness as a large man while Verdon was said to be "more frail", had just completed their first day's work on the ground when they were kidnapped.
The watchman at the hotel said that "the kidnappers were armed to the teeth... I was tied up and told to point out the rooms of the Frenchmen, whom they brutally took away".
The kidnap was "well organised", said a source in the security forces at Hombori. "We think that these people came from one of Mali's neighbouring countries to take part in the operation."
Northern Mali is classified as a "red zone" by the French authorities, which is a recommendation that travel there be avoided.
Hombori is in the "orange zone" to the south, deemed less dangerous.
The kidnappings were the first in this region situated to the south of the vast Malian desert and close to Dogon territory, which is popular with tourists because of the famed masks, architecture and dances of the Dogon people whose land lies close to the border with Burkina Faso.
Thursday's kidnapping, the latest in a series of abductions of foreigners, was believed to be the of work al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but there has as yet been no claim of responsibility.
AQIM has bases in the northern Mali desert from which it organises raids and kidnappings and deals in the trafficking of weapons and drugs.
A security source in Hombori said a search was under way for two Sahrawis, two Algerians and a Malian known for drug trafficking between the camps in Tindouf (housing Sahrawi refugees from Western Sahara) in west Algeria and the Sahel.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on Thursday confirmed that the men had been taken "in circumstances that were not yet clear".
The latest kidnapping brings to six the number of French hostages in the restive Sahel area, with AQIM still holding four French nationals abducted in Niger in September 2010.
The four were among seven people kidnapped at Arlit, the main uranium mining town in Niger.
They included an executive of the French nuclear giant Areva and his wife, both French, with five employees of a sub-contractor of Areva, who were identified as three French men, a Togolese and a Madagascan.
The French woman and the two African men were freed on February 24, but the others are still being held.