Extreme vigilance urged in Sahel after hostage killing

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Embassies and foreign organisations are urging utmost vigilance amongst staff in Sahel countries amid heightened safety concerns after Al-Qaeda militants in Mali executed a French hostage.

Travel advice has been reviewed and basic safety precautions highlighted in an attempt to protect foreign staff working in the "red zone" in countries such as Mauritania, Mali, Niger and southern Algeria.

"We will further limit travel outside of secure areas, further sensitise our employees and pay increased attention to any incident or unusual situation," said France's Areva group which operates two uranium deposits in Niger employing nearly 2,500 people.

A European construction group with a strong presence in the Sahel, asking not to be named, said it runs regular awareness campaigns on the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

After the death of the French hostage it forwarded messages of caution to all offices in the area.

"Luckily many expatriates are on vacation right now," said a source within the group.

AQIM said on Sunday it had killed Michel Germaneau, 78, in revenge after French and Mauritanian soldiers stormed one of the group's camps in Mali and killed seven militants. Germaneau was kidnapped in Niger.

The small but tightly-run Islamist branch has in recent years stepped up tourist kidnappings and terrorist activities. In January 2009, AQIM executed British tourist Edwin Dyer.

Germaneau was a French aid worker, and two Spanish aid workers are still being held in the northern Mali desert.

Major French companies present in the at-risk countries -- such as Total, which is carrying out oil exploration in eastern Mauritania -- enjoy the protection of national armies.

"Mauritania provides travelling military units, in liason with the army command, because Total has known for a long time that its employees are potential targets," said a former high-ranking French counterterrorism official.

The United States has called for its citizens to "exercise heightened awareness and take additional security measures in light of these events."

The State Department website warned "it is possible that AQIM will attempt retaliatory attacks against Western targets of opportunity."

A similar warnings was issued by Britain of a "high threat of kidnapping."

The French foreign ministry has further restricted travel advice, urged its citizens to exercise vigilance and to avoid leaving the capital as much as possible.

There are about 4,300 French citizens recorded in Mali, 2,100 in Mauritania and 1,470 in Niger.

Safety fears do not only concern Westerners but also local staff who make up the majority in businesses and international organsiations.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Dakar, said he wants to "review everything", notably on the safety of Senegalese drivers transporting vehicles back and forth to UNHCR teams in Mali and Niger.

In the past two years the United Nations has advised its staff in Niger against travelling into northern and western areas.

In late 2008, UN special envoy to Niger Robert Fowler and his assistant were kidnapped about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Niamey, before being released over four months later.

© 2010 AFP

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