Niger troops in desert stand-off with Frenchmen's kidnappers
Niger security forces on Saturday located and exchanged fire with the kidnappers of two Frenchmen snatched at gunpoint from a restaurant in the capital, but held off for fear of wounding the hostages.
A government spokesman said it was too soon to say if the kidnappers were linked to an Al-Qaeda cell responsible for other abductions in the vast desert area spanning Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria.
"Around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) one of the security and defence force teams intercepted the kidnappers a few kilometres north of Ouallam and there were exchanges of fire," spokesman Laouali Dan Dah told journalists.
Ouallam is around 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Mali border.
"The security and defence forces did not want to open fire in a major way for fear of wounding the hostages and putting their lives in danger, which is why the kidnappers slipped through the net.
"What's certain is that we know their position and the security and defence forces are positioned where the kidnappers are and they are still in Niger. We are very hopeful that this crisis will end well."
One of the two Frenchmen was an aid worker due to marry a local woman in a week and the other a friend who had just arrived in Niamey to attend the ceremony, restaurant manager Soumaila Kima said.
The abduction had echoes of a raid in September on the mining town of Arlit during which five French, a Togolese and a Madagascan were kidnapped. They are now believed to be held in Mali by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Dan Dah said the kidnappers reportedly spoke Arabic, French and Hawza, but "we cannot say exactly what their identity is" as all but one had their faces concealed by turbans.
"It's too soon to establish similarities with the modus operandi of this latest kidnapping and that in Arlit (in September).
"We are dealing with villainous acts that must be treated with the greatest care and dexterity in order to avoid putting the hostages' lives in danger."
But he stressed, "The kidnappers are still on Niger territory. The zone where they are is being sealed and is under surveillance."
"France is taking part and we have the hope that at some point the elements that we have positioned can put the kidnappers out of action," he added.
A military source in northern Mali said French aircraft were participating in the search.
"We think it is intermediaries who have kidnapped the two Frenchmen and they are trying to hand them over to fundamentalists and we are doing everything to prevent that," the source said.
Two gunmen 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.
Restaurant manager Soumaila Kima said one of the men snatched 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".
A worker at the restaurant which is owned by a former member of the French military described the kidnapping.
"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," he said.
"The Frenchmen tried to resist but finally they pushed them into the car and they drove off quickly," he said, asking not to be named.
"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."
In November, AQIM head Abdelmalek Droukdel, alias Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud, said in a message on Al-Jazeera television that Al-Qaeda leader 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