Mauritanian troops battle Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Mali
Mauritania'a army Saturday battled in deadly clashes in northern Mali with an offshoot of Al-Qaeda suspected of another kidnapping of foreigners in the region, Mauritanian and other sources said.
"Our army has killed 12 armed terrorists and wounded dozens" in the fighting that began Friday with militants of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a senior Mauritanian officer said.
"We have five dead in our own ranks and nine wounded, most of them lightly," he added.
An Algerian security official in the region spoke however of "very many casualties" on the Mauritanian side, including "at least 15" killed.
"The Islamists lost at least five people and others were wounded," the Algerian official said, adding they had captured five or more Mauritanian military vehicles.
A local representative in northern Mali also told AFP that nomadic tribesmen in the region reported "many" Mauritanian soldiers dead in the cross-border operation that began late Friday in the desert region.
One source put Friday's fighting some 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Timbuktu, while another said on Saturday it had broken out at Raz-El-Ma, 235 kilometres west of the northern Malian city.
Sources did not say if the raid was directly linked to Thursday's abductions of seven foreign uranium workers in Niger, who were reported later by security sources to have been taken across the border to northern Mali.
A joint offensive by French and Mauritanian troops in the region two months ago was aimed at freeing a French hostage seized in Niger.
That raid killed seven AQIM members but failed to free hostage Michel Germaneau, and three days later the militant group said it had executed the 78-year-old in retaliation.
On Thursday in northern Niger 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.
The audacious and apparently well-prepared pre-dawn operation seized the victims from their homes near Areva's uranium mine at Arlit, 800 kilometres northeast of Niger's capital Niamey.
The French foreign ministry said it had received no claim or ransom demand and could not be definitive about the kidnappers, despite concerns that they might be linked to AQIM.
A Mauritanian military source said that French forces were not directly involved in Saturday's offensive, but locals in the Kidal region, 1,600 kilometres northeast of Bamako, said they had seen a French reconnaissance aircraft overflying the area.
"It's true that allies, especially the French, have given us valuable information for the operation but they are not at our side," the Mauritanian source told AFP.
Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure told Radio France Internationale that his country's troops were staying out of the fighting, and he could not confirm if the Areva captives were in Mali.
Bamako allowed all neighbouring countries to engage in hot pursuit operations into Mali, he said, calling for global action to defeat terrorism, "which feeds on under-development."
With the latest kidnappings, French nationals working for French firms in the north of Niger were evacuated on Friday towards Niamey or repatriated to France.
About half a dozen Areva employees arrived Saturday morning at Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris, following some 14 workers the day before, company spokeswoman Anne Fauconnier said.
"We didn't feel any real tensions except for the morning when we learned that our colleagues had been kidnapped. That was a sudden shock," said Olivier Godon, 40, an Areva auditor repatriated to France.
The French state-owned nuclear firm has worked in Niger for 40 years and employs some 2,500 people, including until Friday about 50 expatriates.
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.
© 2010 AFP