Fighters from the Front des Forces de Redressement, a Tuareg rebel group active in Niger, said in a statement that they are holding a UN special envoy for the region, Canadian Robert Fowler, who went missing on Sunday.
AFP - The Niger government is still without news of the top UN official in the country, Canadian Robert Fowler, who disappeared three days ago west of the capital, the government spokesman said Wednesday.
Mohamed Ben Omar told AFP he had no news of Fowler, the UN envoy to Niger who disappeared Sunday along with another Canadian diplomat, Louis Guay, and their driver, and that searches were still continuing.
The men disappeared some 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of the capital Niamey around Tillaberi, the very region where Niger will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence Thursday.
Ben Omar said the men appeared to have disappeared after visiting Samira, a gold mining site of which Canada's Etruscan Resources is co-owner. Getting to Samira from Niamey entails crossing the Niger river by ferry.
The minister said the men's car was found on the Niamey side of the river close to the jetty for the ferry, implying they had been to Samira and were on their way back to the capital at the time of their disappearance.
Inside the car were three phones, a camera and a jacket.
Witnesses later cast doubt on the fact the car was found near the ferry landing.
"There's no way the car can have been found on the ferry car park," said Illiassou, who runs a restaurant at Farie, close to the ferry landing.
"There were far too many people for something like that to happen under our noses. We stay open until midnight and after that private security guards take over to look after our things until morning," he explained.
"I myself saw the car when it came off the ferry, coming from the Right Bank (Samira side) -- it was around 6:30 (1730 GMT). There were three people on board including the driver and they immediately set off back towards Niamey," he said.
A gendarme stationed at Farie, who asked not to be named, said a UN staffer in Niamey, seeing that Fowler and Guay had not returned to the capital by 7 pm Sunday, called a Farie resident for fear the men had met with an accident.
That resident alerted the gendarmes and first thing Monday a team of gendarmes found Fowler's vehicle at the side of the road, facing towards Niamey, with the engine and an indicator running and the doors wide open, the source said.
Ben Omar said exceptional security measures were in place along the Niamey-Tillaberi road, in view of the anniversary celebrations.
He said Fowler's official UN vehicle was followed by a car with Togolese numberplates when it left Niamey. This second car has not been found.
On Tuesday the Restoration Forces Front (FFR), a Niger Tuareg rebel group, claimed on its website that it had kidnapped the Canadians.
However a few hours later the head of the FFR in a telephone interview with AFP denied that his group was responsible.
In Washington on Wednesday, deputy spokesman Robert Wood expressed the US State Department's "grave concern about the disappearance" of Fowler, Guay and their driver.
"The United States offers the Canadian and Niger governments and the United Nations Secretary General its full support towards finding Mr Fowler and his colleagues," Wood said.
Date created : 2008-12-18