Rebels abduct four French nationals in Niger

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Tuareg rebels abducted four French people working for the nuclear group Areva in Niger, a spokesman for the company told AFP on Sunday.

23 June 2008

LAGOS - Tuareg rebels abducted four French people working for the nuclear group Areva in Niger, a spokesman for the company told AFP on Sunday.

The four French nationals were seized in the north-west African country by an ethnic Tuareg rebel group, the Movement of the People of Niger for Justice (MNJ), said an Areva spokesman who had made contact with the captives.

Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier said they had been abducted in the mineral-rich northern region of Niger, where Areva has mining contracts, but are "safe and well."

The three men, including the group's local operations director, and a female geologist, "were able to enter into contact with their colleagues," Saulnier added.

Speaking for the MNJ rebel group, Agali Alambo told AFP by telephone that the four French workers would be freed quickly - "perhaps this evening" - and without any demands but "with a message for the Areva management."

He suggested the MNJ was already in dialogue with the international Red Cross and the French embassy in Niamey, "but not with the Niger authorities," he added.

"We want to pass on the message to the (Niger) government that it's impossible to do anything concerning prospection and exploitation (ofminerals) before problems are resolved in the north of the country," he said.

Alambo specified that the group were taken "without a single gunshot being fired and in the centre of the town of Arlit (Niger's uranium capital) while they were out jogging."

He said the MNJ "has nothing against Areva, nor against any other foreign company."

The MNJ has carried out a string of attacks in the north of Niger in recent months in a campaign to seek greater benefits from uranium extraction for the region's inhabitants.

Active since February 2007 in the barren but uranium-rich north, the MNJ says peace will not return to the region without better integration of Tuaregs into the army, paramilitary corps and the local mining sector.

In an interview published in February, the MNJ's Rhissa Ag Boula said uranium mines operated by Areva and convoys serving them would be targeted again.

Areva responded by declaring itself "nobody's enemy" and a company that "values the stability of the country."

The following month, gunmen killed one civilian and wounded another in an attack on a lorry used for transporting uranium from north Niger to a port in Benin.

In April 2007, MNJ rebels had attacked Areva's biggest uranium project at Imouraren.
It also attacked a China Nuclear Engineering and Construction Corporation site in July 2007, with the Chinese group ultimately evacuating one prospective mine.

The MNJ is dismissed by Niamey as a group of "bandits" and "drug-dealers" and is a splinter faction of Niger's main Tuareg groups, which signed a 1995 agreement with the government to end a first Tuareg rebellion.

The Tuaregs are nomadic tribes who roamed the Sahara for centuries before nations of the region gained independence from European colonial powers.

The Areva group is "totally mobilised in liaison with the Niger and French authorities for the release" of the French nationals, the company spokesman said.

Areva, which claims to be the world's second largest uranium producer, is the largest private employer in Niger and the world's largest civil nuclear energy group.

Active in the country for 40 years, Areva sealed a mining rights and price-fixing partnership with Niger in January.

Niger is the world's third largest uranium producing country.

[APF / Expatica]

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