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 region 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."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that the leader of the military leader had been wounded in the clash with the kidnappers but that it "seemed" the operation "pursuing the terrorists as they head for Mali" was still under way.
One of the abducted 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 echoed a raid in September on the mining town of Arlit during which five French nationals, along with a Togolese and a Madagascan were kidnapped. They are now believed to be held in Mali by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Sarkozy on Saturday again advised French citizens to stay out of the region until security conditions improved.
Dan Dah said the kidnappers reportedly spoke Arabic, French and Hawza, but added that "we cannot say exactly what their identity is" because 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)."
He said the kidnappers were still on Niger territory and that France was taking part in the search.
A military source in northern Mali said French aircraft has been deployed.
"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.
Staff and diners told AFP that gunmen burst into the city centre Toulousain restaurant in Niamey and forced the Frenchmen to follow them. Dan Dah said they were brandishing AK-47 assault rifles and machine pistols.
The Frenchmen 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 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