Troops clash with suspected Al-Qaeda kidnappers: sources

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Mauritanian troops Saturday battled Al-Qaeda's north African wing, the key suspect in the kidnapping of five French and two African uranium workers, in Mali, security sources told AFP.

"The clashes began on the Mauritania-Mali border but then moved on to Malian territory at Hassissidi, about 100 kilometres (about 60 miles) north of Timbuktu," a Malian security source said.

"We are presently in Malian territory and engaged in full combat," added a Mauritanian security source.

However both sources did not specify if the clashes were linked to the abductions.

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 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, security sources told AFP.

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.

French Defence Minister Herve Morin decided to cut short his trip to Canada on Friday to return home to deal with the kidnapping crisis as a "precautionary" measure, he told AFP.

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 may be linked to the north African wing, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

However Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told Europe 1 radio that "one could imagine it's the same group, at least the AQIM movement," adding that he feared it was the same gang that had murdered a French hostage in July.

"But I can't be certain, because no-one has claimed responsibility."

French and Mauritanian soldiers launched an attack on a suspected Al-Qaeda base in the Malian desert on July 22, killing seven militants but failing to find the elderly hostage who was later murdered.

AQIM later called for revenge against France and labelled French President Nicolas Sarkozy an "enemy of God."

"To the enemy of Allah (God) Sarkozy I say: You have missed your opportunity and opened the gates of trouble on your country," an AQIM leader, Abu Anas al-Shanqiti, said in a statement posted on jihadist forums in August.

A Niger security official also pointed to AQIM, which has carried out several previous kidnappings of Westerners in the vast territory south of the Sahara stretching westwards from Mauritania across Mali and Niger.

The group has also previously moved its hostages to the Malian desert.

"Among the kidnappers, there is believed to be an element of the group led by Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, and the others were acting under orders," said this source, who believed that Abou Zeid ordered the kidnappings.

Abou Zeid, an Algerian, is the head of the AQIM cell that in April took hostage 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, whose execution was announced on July 25 after the failed French military rescue attempt.

A source close to Niger investigators told AFP that the hostage takers had "inside people" in the security force protecting Arlit.

Kouchner also said that the kidnappers "could be Tuaregs working to order" who would sell their hostages "to terrorists."

French nationals working for French firms in the north of Niger were evacuated on Friday towards Niamey or 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 company extracts half its total uranium production from Arlit and the nearby Akokan mine, and nuclear power plants provide France with more than 75 percent of its electricity supply.

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

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