Five French, two Africans kidnapped in Niger
Kidnappers abducted five French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan on Thursday in a uranium mining region of the West African country of Niger that is prey to Al-Qaeda militants, officials said.
"The attackers were probably elements of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or bandits who sell their hostages on to the jihadists," a security official in Niger told AFP in Niamey, speaking on condition of anonymity.
French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said: "According to our information, seven people, including five French citizens employed by Areva and Satom, were kidnapped last night in the Arlit region of Niger.
"All the state's services have been fully mobilised, notably the foreign ministry crisis centre and our Niamey embassy," he added.
French nuclear giant Areva and Vinci engineering group subsidiary Satom said six of their employees and the wife of one of these employees were taken in the Arlit region, 800 kilometres (500 miles) northeast of the capital.
In a joint statement, the firms said they had stepped up security measures for their remaining employees in Niger and were working with the authorities in France and Niger to seek the safe release of the hostages.
Areva said the married couple had been seized at their home.
Niger government spokesman Laouali Dan Dah confirmed the nationalities of the victims and said they had been taken by an "armed group" of men speaking Arabic and sometimes Tamachek, the language of local Tuaregs.
"Afterwards they headed off in the direction of Inabangaret," he said, referring to a town deeper in the Sahara near the border with Algeria and Mali, where Al-Qaeda linked kidnappers took a French hostage in April
"A certain number of measures have been taken, by police and the military, to quickly find the victims and the kidnappers without putting the hostages' lives in danger," he said, without going into detail.
The French military works closely with several armies in the region, but there was no immediate confirmation that they have been mobilised.
Another security official in Niger said the surprise attack had been launched between 2.00 am and 5.00 am on Thursday. The gang wore turbans and arrived driving five pick-up trucks.
Areva operates a major uranium mining operation in the remote Arlit region, which is prey to roving gangs of Touareg rebels, armed bandits and Islamist militants linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Last month France declared it was "at war" with Al-Qaeda after the murder of a previous French hostage, 78-year-old Michel Germaneau, who was abducted in Niger in April and taken across the desert to a militant camp in Mali.
On July 22, French and Mauritanian commandos launched an assault on an Al-Qaeda base in Mali where they thought Germaneau was being held, killing seven militants. But they failed to find the hostage.
An AQIM commander later announced that their captive had been killed in revenge for the raid, but his body has not been found and French officials suspect he may already have been dead when the assault was launched.
In August, AQIM leader Abu Anas al-Shanqiti posted a message on a jihadi website threatening France and President Nicolas Sarkozy with vengeance.
"To the enemy of Allah, Sarkozy, I say: You have missed your opportunity and opened the gates of trouble," he said, urging attacks on the "apostate traitors, the sons and agents of Christian France."
France responded by updating its domestic security measures and issuing a travel warning urging citizens to avoid the Sahel region of Africa between Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad in which AQIM operates.
Nevertheless, France's huge nuclear power generating industry relies on Niger for 50 percent of its fuel.
Areva employs 2,500 people including many French expats mining uranium in the former African colony.
In July, Areva -- which is majority state-owned -- announced that it had stepped up security in Niger, where it has worked for 40 years.
© 2010 AFP