Al-Qaeda main suspect in Niger kidnappings
Officials warned Friday that Al-Qaeda's north African wing is the prime suspect in the kidnapping of seven foreign workers, five of them French, from a uranium mining town in Niger.
Before dawn on Thursday, gunmen kidnapped an employee of the French nuclear group Areva and his wife, both French, and five others, including a Togolese and a Madagascan, from Satom, a subsidiary of construction giant Vinci.
"One could imagine it's the same groups, at least the AQIM movement," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told Europe 1 radio, adding that he feared it was the same gang that had murdered a French hostage in July.
"But I can't be certain, because no-one has claimed responsibility."
The foreign ministry said it had received no claim nor a ransom demand and could not draw a definitive conclusion about the kidnappers, despite concerns that they may be linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
A Nigerien security official also pointed to AQIM, which has carried out several previous kidnappings of Westerners in the vast territory south of the Sahara stretching westwards from Mauritania across Mali and Niger.
"Among the kidnappers, there is believed to be an element of the group led by Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, and the others were acting under orders," said this source, who believed that Abou Zeid ordered the kidnappings.
Abou Zeid, an Algerian, is the head of the AQIM cell which in April took hostage 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, whose execution was announced on July 25 after a failed French military rescue attempt.
French and Mauritanian soldiers launched an attack on a suspected Al-Qaeda base in the Malian desert on July 22, killing seven militants but failing to find the hostage.
Following the raid, AQIM made threats against French interests both in the region and in France itself.
Kouchner also said that the kidnappers "could be Tuaregs working to order" who would sell their hostages "to terrorists".
On Thursday, Niamey officials said members of the "armed group" spoke mostly Arabic and some Tamachek, the language of Tuaregs in the region.
The last Tuareg rebellion, aimed at a fairer distribution of the income from uranium mining, was in 2007-2009.
A Tuareg official and former rebel, Boutali Tchewiren, head of the Alhak-Nakal (Right to Land) Association, on Friday rejected what he said was a "serious accusation" against the Tuareg people.
Nigerien and French authorities declared themselves fully mobilised, working together to track down the kidnappers, who carried out an audacious and apparently well-prepared operation, seizing the victims from their homes.
"The Nigerien army is deployed to search for the hostages and see if we can't stop them leaving Nigerien territory, if they are still on it," said a security source.
Some officials, including Kouchner, warned the group could be headed for neighbouring Mali, as in previous kidnaps.
French nationals working for French firms in the north of Niger were being repatriated on Friday towards the capital Niamey or home to France.
Fourteen Areva employees returned to France in the morning from Niamey and "about another 10" will return in the evening, an Areva spokesman said.
For the French state-owned nuclear firm, Niger is a strategic country.
Areva has worked in Niger for 40 years and employs some 2,500 people, including until the last few hours about 50 expatriates. The company extracts half its total uranium production from Arlit and the nearby Akokan mine.
The Areva group hopes to put into service a giant uranium mine at Imouraren at the end of 2013, also in the north of the country.
Though Niger is among the poorest nations in the world, it is the third largest producer of uranium.
© 2010 AFP