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French troops land in Niger amid row over Areva security

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-09-20

French troops have landed in Niger to step up the hunt for seven foreign nuclear workers, including five French nationals, who were kidnapped last week in a daring operation blamed on al Qaeda's North Africa branch.

The landing of some 80 French counter-terrorism troops in Niger marks a significant escalation in Paris’ war on the North African branch of al Qaeda (AQIM), the prime suspect in last week’s abduction of seven foreign workers.

A source close to the West African country’s ruling junta quoted by the Reuters news agency revealed that the French forces had arrived in the capital Niamey on a reconnaissance aircraft by Monday.

“The French military remains discreet on its role in the region. They just say that they’re providing logistical support to [Niger's] forces,” says Willy Bracciano, FRANCE 24’s special correspondent in Niger.

French government spokesman Luc Chatel told Radio J in Paris on Sunday that France would “do everything to free the hostages”.

Sahel countries on war footing

Map showing AQIM's desert sanctuary
This increasing French involvement comes as local military forces are flexing their muscles in the vast, lawless desert region known as the Sahel, with most operations focusing on Mali – which former anti-terror judge Jean-Louis Bruguière has described as the region’s “weak spot”.

The Mauritanian army said it killed 12 extremists in a raid on an AQIM camp in western Mali on Sept. 19, while authorities in France and Niger suspect all seven hostages have been taken to northern Mali.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the daring kidnapping operation in the supposedly secure uranium mining town or Arlit, some 1,000 kilometres north of Niamey.

But French authorities have repeatedly pointed the finger at AQIM, a group that executed a French hostage last July and vowed total war against France.

Controversy over Areva’s security arrangements

The French troops’ arrival comes as an Areva spokesman launched a blame game with the Niger government over the firm’s security arrangements near its mining installations.

"There were without doubt ... failings, things which did not work," admitted Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier in a radio interview. But the Areva spokesman also insisted that the group does not “do what it wants” in Niger, implying that the firm was somehow restrained in securing the strategic uranium-rich zone.

Earlier, former Nigerien interior minister Idi Ongo Omar slammed Areva for not having “serious security arrangements”.

The seven foreigners were kidnapped in their living quarters, an area supposedly protected by a double layer of security, comprised of both military and private personnel.

“Areva admitted its 150 guards were not armed because the company has a deal with the Niger government, which, in return, offered 350 gendarmes and soldiers trained in counter-terrorism to protect the area,” Bracciano reported.

The controversy is likely to keep on brewing as both France's and Niger's authorities are convinced that the kidnappers benefited from “accomplices” involved in a “breakdown” of security arrangements.

 

Date created : 2010-09-20

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