Two French journalists have been kidnapped in the northern Mali town of Kidal.
The governor of the region, Colonel Adama Kamissoko, told Reuters news agency “they were abducted by four armed men”. He said the pair left the capital Bamako for Kidal on Tuesday.
Radio France Internationale (RFI) confirmed on its website that two of its journalists had been kidnapped.
They have been named in French media as Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont.
Two French journalists have been kidnapped in the northern Mali town of Kidal
The French foreign ministry says it is checking the reports.
The journalists had been interviewing Kidal resident Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, a local official of the MNLA ethnic Tuareg separatist group, Reuters reports.
“When they left, I heard a strange noise outside. I immediately went out to see and when I opened my door, a turbaned man pointed a gun at me and told me go back inside,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“I could not see how many men were there,” he said.
France led an operation to oust Islamist rebels from northern Mali – its former colony – earlier this year, sending in thousands of troops.
It handed over responsibility for security to a UN force in the summer, however French troops are still in the country helping to prevent a resurgence of militant activity in the region.
France’s President Francois Hollande has said his country’s forces are engaged in the “final phase” of the fight against militants in northern Mali.
Francois Hollande said there had been heavy fighting in the Ifoghas mountains, where members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were thought to be hiding.
The president also praised Chadian troops for their efforts in the same area.
Thirteen Chadian soldiers and some 65 militants were killed in clashes on Friday, according to the Chadian army.
Chad’s government has promised to deploy 2,000 troops as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma).
Speaking in Paris on Saturday, Francois Hollande said “heavy fighting” was taking place in the far north of Mali, near the Algerian border.
“This is the final phase of the process since it is in that massif [the Ifoghas mountains] that AQIM forces have probably regrouped,” he said.
“Our Chadian friends launched an attack yesterday which was very harsh with significant loss of life,” Francois Hollande added.
“I want to praise what the Chadians are doing.”
France’s President Francois Hollande has said his country’s forces are engaged in the “final phase” of the fight against militants in northern Mali
The latest fighting was between Islamists militants and ethnic Tuareg in the In-Khalil area, near the border town of Tessalit.
The MNLA – a secular Tuareg group which seeks an independent homeland in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Mali, Libya, Algeria, Niger and Burkina Faso – was at one time allied to the Islamists but now supports the French-led offensive.
France has deployed 4,000 troops since January 11 to help the Malian government eject Islamist militants who seized control of the north of the country last year.
The French-led forces faced little resistance during the initial offensive, when they recaptured major towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
Meanwhile, more help for the French and African forces is being offered by the United States, which is sending Predator drones to Niger.
The unarmed drones would be used to overfly the zone of combat in Mali and provide information about deployments, US officials said.
A group of Tuareg rebels has declared independence for a northern Malian region called Azawad, after seizing control of the area late last month.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) made the statement on its website, adding that it would respect other states’ borders.
Tuareg is one of two rebel groups to have gained ground in the area after Mali’s government was ousted.
Coup leaders took over in protest at the failure to stem the rebellion.
The declaration comes as rights group Amnesty International warned that Mali was on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster in the wake of the rebellion.
It demanded that aid agencies be given immediate access to the country after days of looting, abduction and chaos in the northern towns of Gao, Kidal and the historic city of Timbuktu.
Tuareg rebels has declared independence for a northern Malian region called Azawad
On Thursday the MNLA rebels declared a “unilateral” ceasefire after the UN Security Council called for an end to the fighting in Mali – and after it said it had secured territory.
A statement posted on the rebel website on Friday proclaimed independence, adding it would respect existing borders with neighboring states and adhere to the UN Charter. The statement also called for recognition from the international community.
“We completely accept the role and responsibility that behoves us to secure this territory. We have ended a very important fight, that of liberation… now the biggest task commences,” rebel spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher is quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.
However, it is unclear which of several groups is actually in charge in northern Mali.
The MNLA was formed last year, partly by well-armed Tuareg fighters returning from Libya, where they had backed former leader Muammar Gaddafi.
But the UN has voiced alarm at the presence of the Ansar Dine group amid the rebel forces, which has links to al-Qaeda and wants to impose Islamic law, or Sharia, across the whole of the West African state.
Unlike the MNLA, Ansar Dine is not in favor of an independent northern state. AFP reports that Islamist rebels have begun exerting control in parts of northern Mali.
Mali has been in disarray ever since the 22 March coup enabled rebels to secure territory in the north.
People are continuing to flee the area and buses to the capital have been packed with people desperate to get out. Reports say the situation in the northern town of Gao, in rebel hands, is particularly tense.
The Algerian government also says seven members of its staff were kidnapped by unknown gunmen in Gao. The consul and six colleagues were forced to leave their diplomatic mission at gunpoint.
The Algerian government says it is doing all it can to find them.
Mali’s borders have been closed to trade, the country’s access to funds at the central bank for the region’s common currency frozen and travel bans slapped on coup leaders and their supporters.
The coup and Tuareg rebellion have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in Mali and some neighboring countries, with aid agencies warning that 13 million people need food aid following a drought in the region.