Islamist fighters from the Ansar Dine group,
Islamist fighters from the Ansar Dine group,Reuters

Al Qaeda's northern African branch has claimed responsibility for the execution of two French journalists.

Ghislaine Dupont, 57, and Claude Verlon, 55, were kidnapped and murdered on Saturday in the town of Kidal in Mali, which has been the scene of clashes between government troops and Tuareg rebels fighting for an independent state. The two were kidnapped by "terrorist groups", according to French officials, as they conducted interviews with local Tuareg separatists.

On Wednesday, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) confirmed in a letter to Sahara Medias, a news website in neighboring Mauritania which regularly receives statements from armed groups in Mali, that it was behind the murders. The group claimed its actions were "a response to crimes committed by France against Malians and the work of African and international forces against the Muslims of Azawad", according to Al Jazeera.

Azawad is the name given by ethnic Tuaregs to northern Mali. 

French troops had been sent to the former French colony back in January, after Tuareg rebels seized control of roughly half the country from government forces and came within miles of storming the capital. The largely-secular Tuareg rebel movement - which had unsuccessfully appealed for western support for their claims to independence at the time - soon saw themselves sidelined by Islamist groups linked to Al Qaeda, triggering fears of yet another potential breeding-ground for Al Qaeda and prompting French intervention.

But France has since begun withdrawing its troops, and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday that his country remained committed to that withdrawal in spite of the recent killings.