PARIS/BAMAKO (Reuters) - The coffins of two French journalists killed in Mali last week were loaded onto a Paris-bound aircraft in the capital Bamako on Monday as French and Malian troops hunted for their killers.
Reporter Claude Verlon, 58, and radio technician Ghislaine Dupont, 51, who both worked for Radio France Internationale, were found dead in northern Mali on Saturday after being kidnapped in the city of Kidal.
In a solemn ceremony attended by the new Malian president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, soldiers carried the two coffins onto a military aircraft that was due to land in Paris on Tuesday morning.
"Mali's Kidal has witnessed the disappearance ... of two courageous fighters for liberty," Mali's communication minister, Jean Marie Sangare, said at the ceremony.
Earlier, dozens of journalists accompanied by artists, politicians and residents walked in silence through the capital to the French embassy to mourn Verlon and Dupont.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said French and Malian forces had begun questioning suspects in northern Mali.
"On Sunday, operations were launched to identify a number of people in camps, and they are ongoing," Fabius told France's RTL radio. "Suspects have been questioned."
He declined to comment on French media reports that arrests had been made in camps where former rebels of the Tuareg rebel group MNLA are being held.
A Malian gendarme in Gao said he had no information about the arrests while the leader of the MNLA condemned the killings.
"We will invest fully in the search for the truth so that this mystery is resolved," Bilal Ag Acherif, secretary general of the MNLA, said at a conference in Ouagadougou.
The incident highlights the security risks that remain in Mali, even after a French-led invasion in January that drove out the al-Qaeda linked militants who had seized Mali's northern half.
Kidal, birthplace of the Tuareg uprising last year that set off Mali's slide into chaos, is a desert city where small contingents of United Nations and French troops have been unable to stop militants circulating.
France has about 3,000 soldiers in Mali, alongside Malian troops and U.N. peacekeepers (MINUSMA), although it has only about 200 in Kidal and another 100 in Tessalit, several hundred kilometers away in the northwest.
Nearly 150 French soldiers arrived in Kidal on Sunday from Gao as reinforcements, the Defence Ministry said.
The RFI journalists, who each had more than 10 years of experience reporting on African conflicts, were killed after being abducted in front of the house of a tribal leader they had just interviewed in Kidal. Verlon's body was found 12 km from the town with three bullet wounds to the head, while Dupont had been shot twice in the chest, Fabius said.
No group has claimed the killings. French officials suspect the involvement of an Islamist militant group, either al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or MUJAO (Movement for Unification and Jihad in West Africa), Fabius said.
RFI said that Dupont, a reporter, and Verlon, a radio technician, were working on stories for a special broadcast the station had planned for November 7.
The kidnapping happened four days after four French hostages captured in Niger by AQIM were released after three years in captivity following secret talks with Niger officials.
The World Bank and the European Union on Monday pledged more than $8 billion of investment for the Sahel region, a string of arid, weak states south of the Sahara, including Mali, that have pockets of militancy.
(Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur, Marine Pennetier and Alexandria Sage in Paris and David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Kevin Liffey)