Twin car bombings at Niger uranium plant, army base kill 10
Twin car bombings at an army base and a French-run uranium mine in northern Niger killed at least 10 people Thursday, in unprecedented attacks claimed by an Islamist group fighting French-led troops in neighbouring Mali.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed the bombings, calling them punishment for Niger's participation in a French-led military offensive against Islamist extremists who had seized control of northern Mali last year and ruled it under a brutal version of Islamic law for some 10 months.
"Thanks to Allah, we have carried out two operations against the enemies of Islam in Niger," MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui told AFP.
"We attacked France and Niger for its cooperation with France in the war against sharia (Islamic law)."
The attacks are the first of their kind in Niger, an impoverished west African country that has sent troops into neighbouring Mali as part of a regional force supporting the French-led operation.
They come some four months after Al-Qaeda-linked militants seized a desert gas plant in a brazen raid in neighbouring Algeria that left 38 hostages dead, including 37 foreigners, in what the Islamists called a retaliatory attack for France's action in Mali.
French nuclear giant Areva said 13 people had been wounded at its Somair subsidiary, while a Western source said the two blasts had killed at least 10 people.
In the first attack, a car exploded outside the army base in Agadez, the largest city in northern Niger. Residents said the blast was followed by bursts of heavy weapons fire.
"The attackers have been neutralised," Defence Minister Mahamadou Karidjo told AFP.
"They are 'redskins'," he added, in a reference to members of the country's Tuareg and Arab groups.
"All the streets of Agadez are blocked. The army is sweeping the city," said resident Barka Sofa.
Some 30 minutes after the first blast, a suicide bomber blew up an explosives-laden four-by-four at the Somair uranium mine and processing facility as employees reported for work at the site, which is majority-owned by Areva and is located some 250 kilometres (150 miles) north of Agadez.
"A man in military uniform driving a four-by-four packed with explosives mixed in with the Somair workers and blew up his vehicle in front of the power station at the uranium treatment facility," an employee told AFP.
"Company managers told us the suicide bomber was killed in the explosion," he added, saying the blast had caused minor damage but had not stopped work at the site.
Somair is 63.6-percent-owned by Areva and 36.4-percent-owned by SOPAMIN, the agency that manages Niger's state mining interests.
France pledged its "full solidarity with the Nigerien authorities in the fight against terrorist groups," said foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot.
Areva condemned blast as a "terrorist attack" on its website and said Nigerien authorities had stepped up security measures at its facilities.
Niger is part of the African-led Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), a regional military mission launched to help reclaim northern Mali from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and two allied Islamist groups that seized the vast desert territory in the chaotic aftermath of a March 2012 military coup.
French troops have so far led the operation against the Islamists, which was launched in January and has pushed the radicals from the territory they had brutally ruled.
Islamist groups have carried out several kidnappings in Niger in recent years, especially in the north.
Seven employees of Areva and one of its subcontractors were abducted in September 2010 by AQIM. Four Frenchmen are still being held by their kidnappers.
© 2013 AFP