Days after a deadly suicide attack at a French-run uranium mine in Niger, a FRANCE 24 team that was given access to the high security site found evidence that the assailants had meticulously studied their target and likely received inside help.
The explosives-packed car that rammed a grinding unit at a uranium mine in Arlit, a remote town in northern Niger, last week is in tatters. The shell of the car’s transmission system stands upright in the rubble, while the twisted frame was flung about ten meters away.
Days after suicide bombers attacked a uranium mine in this West African nation, the carefully coordinated and sophisticated nature of the assault is evident at the high security site.
The Somair mine, run by French nuclear giant Areva, was one of two sites attacked simultaneously at dawn on Thursday, May 23.
One person was slain and 14 other employees were injured at the mine while 18 soldiers and one civilian were killed at the Agadez army base 200 kilometres south of the uranium mining town, making it the worst terrorist attacks in Niger since France launched a military operation in neighbouring Mali in January.
A team of FRANCE 24 journalists – the first foreign TV reporters allowed at the Somair mine since the suicide bombing – found evidence that the attackers had a clear idea of the functioning and layout of the sprawling, tightly secured site.
“They most likely had inside help,” said Niger’s Minister for Mining and Industrial Development Omar Hamidou Tchiana in an interview with FRANCE 24 at the mine.
“The choice of the exact location of the blast means they must have known the mine well. There are a lot of roads, and they targeted a specific area between the factory and the grinder - a key unit for the mine's operations,” said Tchiana.
Links between MUJAO and Mokhtar Belmokhtar
Shortly after Thursday’s attacks, the Islamist militant group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), claimed the twin blasts in Niger. Hours later, a spokesman for al Qaedaa’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) said veteran jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had masterminded the assaults. The two groups have been known to team up and fight together in the past.
Belmokhtar shot into the international spotlight earlier this year when he claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria. Chadian authorities said he was killed during the French-led military operation in northern Mali.
However French authorities never confirmed the report and numerous jihadist sites – which are often quick to acknowledge the death of a “martyr” – maintain the Algerian-born militant is still alive.
In their messages to the media following Thursday’s twin attacks in Niger, both MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s groups said the attacks were in retaliation for the French-led international military operation in neighbouring Mali, where a motley mix of Islamist groups had seized control of northern Mali following a military coup last year.
Investigators sift through the dirt
During a visit to the Somair mine over the weekend, FRANCE 24 journalists found investigators and anti-terrorist police carefully combing through the site.
Past the extensive roadblocks leading up to the facility and the main gates, through which the attackers slipped just as a new shift rotation was starting, a massive crater lay gaping between the grinding unit and a factory.
“This is the blast site, the crater,” said an investigator. “We're sifting through the dirt, we're looking for clues as to what happened,” he added as workers steadily sorted the mud through an industrial-size colander.
Every single piece of metal caught in the colander is then collected for further tests, including a piece of car wreckage that still bears the serial number of the vehicle used in Thursday’s attack.
It’s likely to be a useful resource for investigators especially since there are very few remains of the two suicide bombers who conducted the attack.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 over the weekend, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said the suicide bombers behind twin attacks on the Agadez military base and the Arlit uranium mine came from southern Libya.
On Monday, Issoufou told FRANCE 24 that Islamist militants had also planned assaults in neighbouring Chad. “This attack against Niger was prepared in parallel with another attack aimed at Chad,” said Issoufou. “For now, this attack hasn’t happened, but it was being prepared at the same time as the attack against Niger.”
Located in the Sahel - the remote hostile belt between the Sahara and the African Savannah - Niger shares porous borders with Mali to the west, Algeria and Libya to the north, and Chad to the east.
Date created : 2013-05-27