Niger scours desert for abducted French fiance and friend
Niger security forces were combing the desert between Niamey and Mali on Saturday to find two Frenchmen snatched at gunpoint from a restaurant in the Niger capital, one of whom was due to marry in a week.
The restaurant manager said one of the men, reportedly an aid worker living in Niamey, was about to be married to a local woman and the other was a friend who had just arrived in Niger to attend the ceremony.
The snatch was the latest raid on foreigners in the uranium-rich country, after Al-Qaeda kidnapped seven people, including five French, from the mining town of Arlit in September, now believed held in a northern Mali desert zone.
"The search is mainly being carried out towards Mali," a security source told AFP, requesting anonymity.
"Defence and security forces have been searching since yesterday and there are roadblocks on all the main routes towards the Malian border."
The border is around 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Niamey, where gunmen snatched the two Frenchmen from a restaurant in front of shocked diners and staff late Friday.
Two gunmen wearing turbans burst into the city centre Toulousain restaurant and forced the men to follow them, staff and diners told AFP.
They were taken to a four-by-four vehicle with Benin plates in which other armed men were waiting and then driven off at speed.
"All means have been mobilised and people deployed to undertake the search," Interior Minister Osman Cisse told AFP, adding that a crisis cell had been set up.
He declined to confirm the two men's nationality, although staff at the restaurant said they were both French.
Restaurant manager Soumaila Kima said one was "a regular customer, living in Niamey and working for a non-government organisation in the Plateau district" of the city.
"He was dining with friends and they were talking about the wedding planned for January 15 with a woman from Niger."
Another French customer, who declined to be identified, said, the kidnappers "seemed to know who they were looking for. We were seated just beside the other two but they ignored us".
Five French hostages seized in Niger in September along with a Togolese and a Madagascan are believed to be held by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali.
AQIM operates in the desert covering parts of Niger, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania.
An airport official said that a French reconnaissance aircraft took off from Niamey at around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) on Saturday, around four hours after the men were snatched.
A French foreign ministry spokesman in Paris told AFP late Friday: "We are aware of this information, we are fully mobilised both in Paris and in Niamey to check it."
At the restaurant, staff and diners described what had happened.
"The Frenchmen tried to resist but finally they (the abductors) pushed them into the car and they drove off quickly," said one staff member.
Witnesses said both abductors wore turbans and one customer at the restaurant said the two had fair skin and had spoken Arabic.
"When they came in they fell on the two Frenchmen and they shouted, 'You and you, follow us'. In their rush, one of the attackers lost his turban.
"When they went out with the two Frenchmen, I took my car and I chased them for about a kilometre, but as they were moving at great speed and with the lights out, I couldn't catch them," the staffer said.
Some diners told AFP that they had seen the vehicles used by the kidnappers near the restaurant a few hours before the abduction, the latest brazen raid to target foreigners.
In November, AQIM head Abdelmalek Droukdel, alias Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud, said in a message on Al-Jazeera television that Osama bin Laden alone could negotiate the release of the seven foreigners snatched in September.
French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie rejected any suggestion that France would negotiate their freedom with bin Laden or pull its troops out of Afghanistan.
© 2011 AFP