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Niger rebels release French hostages

©

Latest update : 2008-06-25

Four employees of the French nuclear group Areva who were kidnapped in northern Niger Sunday have been released to the Red Cross. The four French nationals are expected to return home "very soon," according to a statement released by Areva.

Tuareg-led rebels in Niger handed over four French hostages to the Red Cross on Wednesday after three days in captivity.

 

The Red Cross said it hoped to transfer them to Niger authorities on Thursday.

 

"We have just handed over, in a safe location ... the four French nationals to the Red Cross," the rebel Niger Justice Movement (MNJ) said in a statement posted on its website http://m-n-j.blogspot.com/.

 

The MNJ has said it seized the four French nationals, working for the French nuclear group Areva, to disprove the Niger government's assurances that it would guarantee the safety of foreign investors in the West African country.

 

"They are well and should be leaving for France very soon," the French company said in a statement issued in Paris.

 

Juan Coderque, of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regional office in Senegal, told Reuters: "We can confirm that the four French citizens, and a Nigerien (Niger) citizen as well, have been handed over to the ICRC."

 

He added: "We will hand them over to the Niger authorities. If everything goes well it will happen tomorrow."

 

He could give no further details about the Niger national.

 

The rebel movement has taken hostage dozens of Niger army soldiers during more than a year of inconclusive on-off fighting that has killed at least 200 rebels and 70 government troops.

 

 

 

"COMMANDO RAID"

 

The four French hostages were employed at Areva's Cominak mine at Arlit in northern Niger.

 

The MNJ said its members had seized them in a "commando" raid on the Cominak mine. Government and Areva officials said the group were picked up while walking in the town of Arlit.

 

The rebel group initially said it would release the hostages as early as Sunday, but humanitarian officials in the region said the practical arrangements for a transfer in northern Niger were complicated.

 

The MNJ, led by nomadic Tuareg tribesmen, wants greater autonomy for the northern region and a larger share of revenues from the uranium being mined there by the French company.

 

Uranium royalties have soared in the past two years thanks to rising world prices and the country hopes to become the world's no. 2 uranium producer by 2011 thanks to new mines being opened by Areva and the China Nuclear International Uranium Corp. (Sino-U).

 

"Regarding Areva, we hope it will take our message into account to avoid any misunderstanding in the future," the MNJ statement said.

 

On Tuesday, the rebel group said government military helicopters tried to attack its bases in northern Niger, endangering the hostages' lives, in an effort to discredit the rebel movement.

 

Officials from the government, which dismisses the rebels as drug traffickers, arms smugglers and bandits with no legitimate demands or status, were not immediately available for comment.

Date created : 2008-06-25

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