Niger ex-rebels handled French expats' security: ex-minister

18th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Private security groups run by former rebel leaders handled the security for expatriate workers at the French nuclear group Areva, a former interior minister of Niger said Saturday.

Denouncing the arrangement, Idi Ango Omar told Anfani radio that the abductors of seven foreign uranium workers at Arlit, 800 kilometres (500 miles) northeast of Niger's capital Niamey, could well have had help from inside.

"The houses of the French at Arlit were guarded by staff working for security companies belonging to three former leaders of the Tuareg rebellion," he added.

He named them as Rhissa Ag Boula, Mohamed Aoutchiki and Ingade Ibrahim, who he said were active during the uprisings by Tuaregs in the 1990s and between 2007 and 2009.

"You can't entrust the safety of French people in this region to leaders of the rebellion," he said.

There were no serious security precautions at the homes of the Areva employees, he added.

One Areva employee confirmed to AFP that civilians posted outside the houses of expatriate workers were unarmed.

Omar also said he thought the gunmen who abducted the seven foreigners on Thursday had had inside help.

On Thursday gunmen seized an employee of the French nuclear group Areva and his wife, both French; and three French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan, employed by Satom, a subsidiary of construction giant Vinci.

Both Niger and France fear that they were either abducted by members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the kidnappers "could be Tuaregs working to order" who would sell their hostages "to terrorists".

Reports that the group's abductors spoke mainly Arab and Tamachek, the language of the local Tuaregs, have also raised suspicions that some Tuaregs may have been involved.

A ceasefire and an amnesty for the Tuareg rebels officially ended the conflict in October 2009, but some of their leaders have accused the authorities of having failed to help former rebels find a place in society.

During the rebellion, Tuareg fighters used to target Areva installations in and around Arlit.

And experts on the region have pointed out that in the past some Tuaregs have carried out abductions for al-Qaeda on a purely business basis, without necessarily sharing their Islamist views.

Since the raid, French nationals working for French firms in the north of Niger have been evacuated to Niamey or repatriated to France.

But Thursday's raid comes despite the fact that Areva announced in July that it had stepped up security in Niger after AQIM murdered a French hostage Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old aid worker, captured in the region.

Areva has worked in Niger for 40 years and employs some 2,500 people, including until Friday about 50 expatriates.

It hopes to have another giant uranium mine in the north of the country, at Imouraren, working by the end of 2013.

© 2010 AFP

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