Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were on their way to interview a spokesman for the Tuareg separatist group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in the rebel stronghold of Kidal when they were abducted outside his home.
French President Francois Hollande called a meeting of his ministers for Sunday to establish “jointly with Malian authorities and UN forces, the conditions of the killings”.
He expressed “his indignation over this despicable act”, said a statement from his office.
Hollande and Malian leader Ibrahim Boubacar Keita spoke over the telephone, the French president’s office said, reaffirming their determination “to relentlessly pursue the fight against terrorist groups that are present in northern Mali”.
RFI said MNLA spokesman Ambery Ag Rhissa was waiting to be interviewed by Verlon and Dupont at 1:00pm (1300 GMT) when he heard suspicious noises outside his home.
“He half opened his door and saw the kidnappers put the journalists into a beige 4X4,” RFI said.
Men in turbans and speaking the Tuareg language of Tamashek “ordered Mr Ag Rhissa to get back inside and forced the journalists’ driver to lie down”, RFI said, adding that Ag Rhisaa had heard Verlon and Dupont protest.
“This is the last time that the journalists were seen,” RFI said.
RFI journalists Ghislaine Dupont (R) and Claude Verlon (L) in Bamao in July 2013. (AFP Photo/)
Dupont, 51, was an African affairs specialist who had spent 27 years covering the continent since joining RFI in 1986, including stints in Ethiopia, Sudan and 10 years in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“She always wanted to dig, dig deeper and she shared this passion with us and always encouraged us to go further,” her colleague Nicolas Champeaux said.
RFI said Verlon, 58, who had been at the station since 1982, was a seasoned journalist who was “used to difficult terrain across the world”.
A spokesman for European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said there was “great sadness” on hearing news of the incident.
The spokesman added the deaths were a “heinous crime” which must not go “unpunished”.
Moussa Ag Assarid, the MNLA’s spokesman in Europe, told the French i-Tele news channel the journalists had been abducted by “unknown elements”.
Several sources cited by RFI said the kidnappers fled with the reporters towards Tin Essako, a village 115 kilometres (70 miles) to the east.
The town of Kidal, situated more than 1,500 km northeast of Bamako, is the traditional homeland of the Tuareg people and the birthplace of the MNLA’s rebellion.
French soldiers patrol the streets of Kidal, northern Mali on July 28, 2013 (AFP Photo/Kenzo Triboui …
A French government source said the journalists had asked to be taken to there with troops from France’s Operation Serval mission but ended up going with the United Nations MINUSMA peacekeeping force after Serval refused for safety reasons.
The deaths have added to security concerns following an upsurge in rebel violence in the aftermath of a French military intervention in January to oust armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda that had occupied the vast desert north for the previous nine months.
They come just three weeks ahead of parliamentary elections which are supposed to mark the completion of Mali’s transition back to democracy following a military coup in March last year that precipitated the fall of the north to the MNLA and its Islamist allies.
The MNLA took control of Kidal in February but the Malian authorities finally reclaimed the city after signing a deal with the MNLA on June 18 aimed at reuniting the country and clearing the way for presidential elections to restore democratic rule.
Under the deal, MNLA forces moved into barracks as regular Malian troops were deployed to secure Kidal.
Some 2,000 French troops from an initial deployment of 3,000 will remain on the ground — including around Kidal — until the end of December, with the withdrawal of a further 1,000 to be completed by the end of January 2014.
MINUSMA is eventually expected to comprise about 12,600 troops and police but Malian soldiers have nevertheless voiced concerns over the prospect of France’s departure from its former colony.
Many Malians accuse the light-skinned Tuareg of being responsible for the chaotic sequence that saw the country split in two for nine months and shattered what had been considered a democratic success story in the restive region.
When the MNLA launched their offensive in January 2012, they humiliated the Malian army by seizing a string of northern towns.
Mid-level army officers angry over the losses then overthrew president Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012, blaming him for the army’s weak response.
The coup unleashed a crisis that saw the Tuareg separatists seize Mali’s vast desert north along with a trio of Islamist groups that then chased out the MNLA and imposed brutal sharia rule on their territory, until the French-led intervention forced them out.