France boosts efforts to find hostages in north Africa
France has dispatched 80 military personnel to Niger as it intensifies efforts to track down seven hostages, including five French nationals, abducted by suspected Al-Qaeda militants last week.
They have set up a base in the capital Niamey and are working in five teams with a mission to find the seven hostages, diplomatic and military sources said Monday.
They have a long-range Breguet Atlantique aircraft and a Mirage jet with sophisticated monitoring equipment at their disposal.
"The goal is to detect radio broadcasts and electromagnetic emissions in a bid to locate the hostage takers," a government source in Paris told AFP. The defence ministry refused to confirm or deny the information.
"They have already carried out 21 hours of reconnaissance flights in the area in an effort to locate the hostages", another source in Niger's capital Niamey.
The seven were kidnapped on Thursday from their homes in Arlit in northern Niger by suspected Al Qaeda-linked gunmen, or Tuareg bandits who may have planned to sell them on to the Islamists.
They are five French nationals, including a married couple, one Togolese and one Madagascan. The majority of them worked for French companies involved in uranium mining in the Arlit region.
The hostages are being held in north-eastern Mali, a mountainous desert region bordering Algeria, according to various sources in the region.
"But we must know that the kidnappers ... move a lot with their hostages," a Malian soldier close to the case told AFP.
France has said it suspects the North African wing of Al-Qaeda -- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- and has not ruled taking military action to free the hostages.
"France will do everything to free the hostages," government spokesman Luc Chatel said on Sunday.
Mauritanian troops -- who have operated with French support in recent months -- are already in action against AQIM in northern Mali and held three days of strikes against the militants over the weekend.
Official figures released by Mauritania on Saturday said the fighting had left 12 dead and an unknown number of wounded in the AQIM camp with six dead and eight wounded in the ranks of the army.
Malian politicians condemned the death of two civilians who were also killed in the attacks, as reported by several witnesses.
Mauritania says its operations were in anticipation of future AQIM actions, and have no link to the abduction of the seven hostages on a uranium mining site belonging to French group Areva.
In Niamey, the spokesman for the Nigerian government, Laouali Dan Dah said on Sunday that the group targeted by the Mauritanian army was "not the one who had taken the hostages" but may be linked to the cell which had carried out the kidnapping.
According to various sources in the region, AQIM's fight against the Mauritanian army was led by Yahya Abu Hamam, who is a close deputy of Algerian Islamist Abu Zeid Abdelamid.
Abu Zeid is considered responsible for the deaths of British hostage Edwin Dyer in May 2009 and of French hostage Michel Germaneau in July 2010.
Meanwhile a dispute between Niger and Areva on security at Arlit continued Monday with an Areva spokesman denying the company had "rejected" support from Niamey.
On Sunday, the spokesman for Niger's government said Areva had chosen "two months ago" to entrust the security of its personnel in Arlit to "unarmed private agents" rather than the army.
© 2010 AFP