BAMAKO (Reuters) - At least nine militants with suspected links to the abduction and killing of two French journalists in northern Mali have been questioned by French forces in the country and handed over to Malian authorities, Mali security sources said on Friday.
The owner of a vehicle believed to have been used by the assailants has also been identified, said one of the sources, who works in Mali's defense ministry.
Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, both journalists at RFI radio, were kidnapped and killed in the northern town of Kidal on November 2. Their bodies were recovered near the four-wheel drive vehicle used by the abductors.
"It was through questioning the suspects that the French army identified Baye Ag Bakabo as the owner of the vehicle. He is known to the security services," the defense ministry source said on condition that he remain anonymous.
He said Ag Bakabo was a Tuareg with links to the north Mali separatist movement MNLA and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). His cell is led by Abdelkrim al-Targui, a senior AQIM commander.
A spokesman for al-Targui told Mauritanian news website Sahara Medias on Wednesday that the militant group was responsible for the killing of the French journalists.
Another senior Malian official who follows northern security issues closely said Ag Bakabo was known for stealing vehicles and had been jailed for this in the past.
France led a military campaign in January to clear Islamist militants from the north of the country after they threatened to invade the capital Bamako, an intervention that France described as largely successful.
Yet pockets of militants remain active in parts of the country including the desert city of Kidal, a stronghold of Tuareg separatist rebels where France now plans to increase its military presence.
(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and David Lewis; writing by Bate Felix; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)