Armed men kidnap seven foreign workers in Niger

Fri, Sep 17, 2010, 01:00

SEVEN FOREIGNERS working for French companies were kidnapped in a uranium mining region of Niger yesterday.

The five French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan were taken from the northern town of Arlit, 800km northeast of the capital Niamey.

The French nuclear giant Areva and Satom, a subsidiary of the Vinci engineering group, said six of their employees and one of their wives were abducted.

Fears were raised that the self-styled Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may have been behind the attack, but no group had claimed responsibility.

“All the state’s services have been fully mobilised, notably the foreign ministry crisis centre and our Niamey embassy,” said French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valéro.

In a joint statement the companies said they had stepped up security for other employees in Niger and were working with the authorities in France and Niger to seek the safe release of the hostages.

Officials from the north African state said the victims had been taken by an armed group of men speaking Arabic and Tamachek, the language of local Tuaregs.

Niger is the world’s sixth biggest producer of uranium, and rebel groups in the region have been fighting for a greater share of the country’s uranium wealth.

France’s huge nuclear power industry relies on Niger for 50 per cent of its fuel, and Areva employs about 2,500 people in the country.

In 2008, four Areva staff – all French nationals – were kidnapped and later released by the Movement for Justice, which opposes the mining. In July this year the company said it was stepping up its security due to the increased threat in the region.

AQIM is also active in other parts of Niger, having kidnapped French and other European nationals in the recent past. In July the group announced it had executed Michel Germaneau (78), a retired French engineer it was holding hostage in Mali, after a raid by French and Mauritanian armed forces failed to free him.

In August AQIM posted a message on a jihadi website threatening France and President Nicolas Sarkozy with vengeance, provoking France to step up its domestic security measures and urge citizens to avoid the Sahel region in which AQIM operates.

In the same month, the Spanish government secured the release of two of its nationals seized by an AQIM cell in Mauritania.