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6 years on questions remain over murder of RFI journalists in Mali

6 years on questions remain over murder of RFI journalists in Mali

RFI's Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were abducted and murdered near Kidal, northern Mali exactly six years ago. But as the UN marks the International Day to End Impunity against Journalists, the circumstances of their death remain unclear and none of the alleged perpetrators have been arrested.

The two journalists were kidnapped and shot dead by armed men in Kidal on 2 November 2013 where they were covering the country's legislative elections. They had just interviewed the Tuareg leader, Ambery Ag Rhissa from the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA). Their murder was claimed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The investigation into their deaths is advancing at a slow pace. But RFI journalists closely following the case have noted some progress relating mainly to telephone calls made around the time of the abduction.

Among the dozens of numbers retrieved from detailed telecommunications bills, the most promising ones relate to phones found in the pick-up vehicle the abductors abandoned outside Kidal.

The French judge in charge of the investigation requested data from two Malian phone operators: Orange Mali and Malitel. The former responded to several requisitions but Malitel's response is judged to be patchy.

Malitel failed to satisfy the judge
According to French judicial sources, Malitel showed an unwillingness to cooperate on several occasions.

“Several requests for information have not been honoured, this has to stop”, said Pierre-Yves Schneider, spokesperson for the Friends of Ghislaine Dupon and Claude Verlon association, the civil party in the case.

“These services need to show more willingness to co-operate and maybe with a bit of pressure from the Mali authorities, we'll get there,” he added.

“The crux of a case can come via phone data,” says lawyer Marie Dosé, representing the civil party. "It's an essential element enabling you to see the links between people, to establish someone's timetable and movements.”

Malitel denies it has sought to obstruct the investigation. Its chairman, Abdelaziz Biddine, told RFI he had handed over all the data in his possession. “Our door is open 24/7,” he said, promising to go back into the archives if the French judge asked him to do so.

High level hearings
Over the last year both François Hollande, French president at the time, and Bernard Bajolet, former head of intelligence (DGSE), testified as part of the investigation.

The hearings sought to shed light on an intercepted phone call in which one of the people presumed to have ordered the abduction appeared to chastise a member of the commando unit for “destroying the merchandise”.

In "off the record" conversations with journalists, including RFI, both Hollande and Bajolet had referred to the phone call. But at the hearings in January they denied knowledge of such a call.

Another line of enquiry which has now been closed relates to the pirating of Dupont's computer after her death, as reported by TV network France 2. The theory was dismissed following an IT expertise ordered by the investigating judge.

RFI is also conducting its own enquiry. In July it revealed that French Special Forces were on the ground in and around Kidal after the assassination and were the first to be informed of the abduction. This contradicts the official version of the French army and authorities.

  • Timeline of discrepancies in French Army account of 2 November killings

Six years on, Dupont and Verlon's families and friends are left with more questions than answers.

Grey areas
The reasons why, and circumstances in which the two hostages were killed are still unknown. Was it an abduction that went wrong? Did the abductors panic when the vehicle broke down and they realised they were being followed? Or had they received instructions to kill Dupont and Verlon? Which of the four abductors carried out the killings and left the bodies some 30m from the vehicle?

Then there's the role of the French Special Forces who, according to RFI's enquiry, were informed ahead of the French Army and went in pursuit of the abductors. Precisely what role did they play?

Another question relates to how the two surviving jihadists who carried out the abduction, and at least one of the commandos, managed to get away from the army. Are they being protected and if so who are their accomplices?

Baye Ag Bakabo: still active and at large
Among the many people the French judiciary is looking for is commando chief Baye Ag Bakabo. He remains under the patronage of Sidan Ag Hitta who is also believed to be linked to the murder of Dupont and Verlon.

Baye Ag Bakabo took over a katiba (jihadist camp) called “Mohamed Ben Mouslima” dedicated to eliminating people who collaborate with France's Operation Barkhane.

In early September, Ahabi Ag Ahmayad, a leading MNLA military chief who had worked with the French army since it began its intervention in Mali in January 2013, was assassinated along with his two bodyguards.

Ahabi's relatives point the finger at Baye Ag Bakabo who was sighted in Kidal at that time.

A few days earlier, on 25 August, Baye Ag Bakabo is believed to have organised the abduction of Alla Gamodi, a deserter from the Mali armed forces who was accused of being too close to the French.

Then in June, Moussa Ag Ismaïl, a gendarme in Menaka who was working with Operation Barkhane, was shot dead. The “Mohamed Ben Mouslima” katiba claimed the murder.

According to multiple sources both from Mali authorities and armed groups in Bamako and in Kidal, Baye Ag Bakabo has been sighted in Kidal and in his family camp to the east of the city in recent months. He also frequently stays in the south of Algeria, near his family home in Tinzaouatène.

French armed forces continue to hunt for him.