French Defense Minister Alain Juppe traveled Monday to the West African nation of Niger for talks with authorities following the killing of two French hostages. The incident underscores growing concern that France is a key target of Islamist extremists in Africa's Sahel region.
The French government says al-Qaida was probably behind the kidnapping and killing of two young French men in the Sahel. The pair were found dead Saturday near Niger's border with Mali following a failed rescue attempt by French and Nigerian forces.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called the incident a "barbaric and cowardly act."
After his arrival in Niger, France's defense minister warned French living there to be vigilant.
In a TV interview Sunday, Juppe said the estimated 1,700 French expatriates in Niger should take precautions and French tourists should refrain from traveling to the West African country.
The killing of the two young men has shocked France. It is especially poignant since one of them, an aid worker, was about to be married. The other man was to have been his best man.
It is the latest in a series of killings and kidnappings targeting French citizens in the Sahel. The killing of four French tourists in Mauritania in late 2007 sparked the cancellation of the Paris-Dakar rally. This past July, a 78-year old French aid worker also was killed in Mauritania after being held hostage for several months. And in September, seven employees of French companies, including five French, were kidnapped in northern Niger.
Analysts believe al-Qaida's North African branch is behind the incidents.
Jean-Pierre Filiu, an expert on terrorist movements, told French television that in recent weeks the local al-Qaida branch announced it is willing to pay dearly for French hostages.
While French politicians have united in condemning the latest killings, some are questioning the government's foreign policy.
One French deputy, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, said France must invest more in defense and security in Africa and less in Afghanistan. For its part, the French foreign ministry said no area can be considered safe for French citizens in the Sahel, an area of northwestern Africa that covers seven countries, including Niger.