Two French journalists snatched by gunmen in the northern Malian town of Kidal on Saturday have been killed, a local prefect, sources from the Tuareg separatist group MNLA and Malian security services told Reuters news agency.
"A few minutes after a pursuit began for the abductors of the two French, we were informed that their bodies were found riddled with bullets outside the town," said Paul-Marie Sidibe, prefect of the town of Tinzawaten, who is based in Kidal.
A senior MNLA military official also said the bodies had been recovered outside Kidal. A Mali security source said the journalists were killed about 8 miles outside the town.
Radio France Internationale (RFI) confirmed the kidnapping of its journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon to Al Jazeera, saying they were taken at 1 p.m. by armed men in Kidal and have not been heard from since. However, the agency was unable to say whether they were dead or alive.
"An investigation is under way," said a spokesperson from the news agency's Paris headquarters.
The journalists had finished an interview with a Tuareg rebel leader when several armed men grabbed them, according to a Kidal city official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the press.
Mali's northern desert region makes up two-thirds of the country's territory, but poverty is widespread among its Tuareg, Arab, Songhai and Fulani populations; and basic infrastructure such as clean water, electricity, schools, hospitals and roads is sparse.
The people of the Sahara desert feel abandoned by the political elites in Bamako, and an entrenched sense of disenfranchisement has stoked various rebellions in recent decades.
The MNLA – or National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad – launched the most recent insurgency to demand independence for northern Mali on behalf of the traditionally nomadic Tuareg last year, following rebellions in 1960, 1990 and 2000.
The uprising precipitated the fall of the region to militants linked to Al-Qaeda, but an intervention by French and African troops in January chased the rebels from the region's main cities.
Al Jazeera and wire services