Mauritanian troops clash with suspected al Qaeda militants
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Clashes between Mauritanian troops and suspected al Qaeda militants on the Mauritania-Mali border on Saturday killed at least 12 militants and two soldiers, according to the Mauritanian military.
"Our army has killed 12 armed terrorists and wounded as many in Friday's clashes," the official said, giving a "first toll" of the clashes with fighters of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which are ongoing.
"Two members of the Mauritanian military were (also) killed and four others wounded," he added.
An Algerian security official said "at least 10" Mauritanian soldiers were killed in the operation. "The Islamists lost at least five people and others were wounded," the official added.
The Mauritanian army "with about 20 vehicles now has members of AQIM encircled near the Malian town of Areich Hindi not far from Hassisdi where the fighting Friday took place," some 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Timbuktu, the Mauritanian official said.
However sources did not specify if the clashes were directly linked to the recent abductions of seven foreign uranium workers in Niger.
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 northern 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.
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.
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 might be linked to AQIM, which killed a French hostage in July.
That month French and Mauritanian soldiers launched an attack on a suspected Al-Qaeda base in the Malian desert, killing seven militants but failing to find the elderly hostage who was later murdered.
AQIM in turn called for revenge against France and labelled French President Nicolas Sarkozy an "enemy of God".
A Mauritanian military source said that French forces were not directly involved in Saturday's offensive.
"It's true that allies, especially the French, have given us valuable information for the operation but they are not at our side," the source told AFP.
With the latest kidnappings, French nationals working for French firms in the north of Niger were evacuated on Friday towards Niamey or repatriated to France.
A group of about half a dozen Areva employees arrived Saturday morning at Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris, following about 14 workers the day before, company spokeswoman Anne Fauconnier said.
"We didn't feel any real tensions except for the morning when we learned that our colleagues had been kidnapped. That was a sudden shock," said Olivier Godon, 40, an Areva auditor, 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 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.