A man suspected of having planned the kidnapping of two French journalists who were murdered in Mali is a Tuareg drug trafficker linked to the north African Al-Qaeda branch, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
The man, Bayes Ag Bakabo, is a key suspect in the kidnapping which led to the deaths of Radio France Internationale journalists Ghislaine Dupont, 57, and Claude Verlon, 55.
"We know he is a member of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), that he is also a drug trafficker," said chief Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
"He was seen driving the pick-up used to kidnap the two journalists and he was seen buying 140 litres of fuel before the kidnapping," he added during a press conference on the investigation.
The two journalists were seized in the flashpoint far northern Malian town of Kidal after interviewing a separatist Tuareg leader, and found dead a few hours later.
Molins said Dupont had been shot three times, and Verlon seven times. The deaths stunned France just days after the return of four hostages who had been held for three years after being abducted by AQIM in Mali's neighbour Niger.
He said authorities were "intensively" hunting for Ag Bakabo.
Meanwhile the mastermind of the attack is believed to be Abdelkrim 'Targui', a Tuareg former lieutenant of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one of the AQIM leaders who were killed fighting the French army in northern Mali in late February.
France intervened in its former colony in January after months of crisis in which Al-Qaeda-linked groups seized control of the vast arid north in the chaotic aftermath of a March 2012 coup.
AQIM claimed the murders of the journalists saying it was "the minimum debt" owed by the French people and President Francois Hollande "in return for their new crusade".
The prosecutor outlined two possible scenarios which lead to the journalists being killed, in a region where westerners can be held for years awaiting lucrative ransoms.
The vehicle in which they were travelling had broken down just outside of Kidal and "either the two hostages tried to take advantage and flee, or the kidnappers did not want to slow their escape and preferred to execute their victims rather than leave them behind."