Troops clash with suspected Al-Qaeda kidnappers: military
Mauritanian troops Saturday clashed in Mali with Al-Qaeda's north African wing, the key suspect in the kidnapping of five French and two African uranium workers in Niger, a military source said.
The clashes were interrupted overnight, but they "resumed violently" Saturday morning, the Mauritanian military source said, adding that they were taking place in Raz-El-Ma, 235 kilometres (146 miles) west of Timbuktu.
An elected official in north Mali confirmed "violent fighting" in this region.
However both sources did not specify if the clashes were linked to the abductions.
In Nouakchott late Friday a Mauritanian security source said "violent fighting" was taking place between the army and "AQIM terrorists", referring to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that killed a French hostage in July.
The same source said Saturday's offensive showed "the determination of our army to eradicate terrorism that has already targeted our army on several occasions and endangered our security."
Before dawn on Thursday, 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, in northern Niger.
Security sources in Niger and Algeria said Friday that the gunmen and their hostages had "crossed the border" between Niger and Mali and were in the Malian desert.
The kidnappers carried out an audacious and apparently well-prepared operation, seizing the victims from their homes near Areva's uranium mine at Arlit, 800 kilometres (500 miles) northeast of Niger's capital Niamey.
The French foreign ministry said it had received no claim or ransom demand and could not draw a definitive conclusion about the kidnappers, despite concerns that they might be linked to AQIM, which killed in a French hostage in July.
That month French and Mauritanian soldiers launched an attack on a suspected Al-Qaeda base in the Malian desert, killing seven militants but failing to find the elderly hostage who was later murdered.
AQIM in turn called for revenge against France and labelled French President Nicolas Sarkozy an "enemy of God".
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.
A group of about half a dozen Areva employees arrived Saturday morning at Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris, following about 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.
For the French state-owned nuclear firm, Niger is a strategic country.
Areva 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.
Though Niger is among the poorest nations in the world, it is the third largest producer of uranium.
© 2010 AFP