France's defence minister has said al Qaida-linked militants were most likely behind the kidnapping of two French nationals in the west African nation of Niger, who were found dead following a rescue attempt that involved French and Niger troops.
Alain Juppe also defended the decision to launch the rescue mission, saying that doing nothing would have signalled to the kidnappers "that in the end France doesn't fight terrorism".
He said there was no conclusive proof that the two 25-year-old friends were killed by their captors, but "everything leads us to believe... that they were executed", by their kidnappers.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has blamed kidnappers for the deaths of Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory. Mr De Leocour was to marry a local woman in a week, and Mr Delory was going to be his best man.
The two were abducted by four armed men in a restaurant in Niamey, the Niger capital, on Friday night.
Their bodies were found on Saturday at the Niger-Mali border after a skirmish involving French forces in which some of the kidnap gang were killed, officials said.
Mr Juppe refused to say what effect the deaths would have on France's efforts to secure the release of five other French nationals, kidnapped in September in Niger and believed to be held in neighbouring Mali. Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has claimed responsibility for that kidnapping.
Questions are being asked on whether the French intervention sealed the young men's fate and whether France should play an active role in hunting down terrorists in the vast desert region known as Sahel that spans portions of Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria. The four countries have set up a joint operation to go after militants with links to al Qaida.
A number of French troops are also deployed in the Sahel region and the United States has provided training for the local troops in the area.
Mr Sarkozy reaffirmed France's determination to keep up the fight against terrorism. "We will never accept the diktat of terrorists," Mr Sarkozy said during a during a visit to Guadeloupe, a French Caribbean region.