French special forces ‘to protect’ Niger uranium mines
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France will send special forces to protect nuclear giant Areva’s uranium mines in Niger, according to a media report, amid a heightened security threat following a French-led offensive to drive Islamist rebels out of neighbouring Mali.
France is to deploy special forces to protect uranium mines belonging to French nuclear energy giant Areva in Niger, according to a report in a news magazine this week.
According to weekly Le Point, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has given the go-ahead for an elite team from France’s armed forces to reinforce local security at the company’s two sites in Niger, a former French colony.
The move comes amid a heightened security threat following a French-led offensive to drive Islamist separatists out of northern Mali, and the deadly hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, which militants said was in revenge for the French military intervention.
The decision to deploy troops, however, was taken earlier in January, after a botched operation to rescue a captured French intelligence agent Denis Allex in southern Somalia, according to Le Point. Allex had been held hostage by militants there since 2009.
It is the first time government troops will be sent overseas to protect a facility owned by a private French company, according to Le Point, although French marines are already deployed on cargo ships travelling through the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea.
Niger’s uranium a strategic French asset
The special forces team will be sent to the Imouraren and Arlit sites operated by Areva, according to the report.
Seven workers, including five French nationals, were abducted in Arlit by militants linked to al Qaeda’s North African Branch, in 2010. Three of those hostages were later released, but four French citizens are still being held.
Areva, which relies on mines in Niger to supply France’s nuclear power stations with uranium, confirmed it was beefing up its security on Thursday.
“We are obliged to reinforce our security … in the light of the current situation [France’s intervention in Mali],” Areva Chief Executive Officer Luc Oursel told BFM TV, although he refused to comment on the report that this would involve French special forces.
Officials in Niger, while acknowledging that the security threat was heightened, said that no agreement had been reached - for the moment - for special forces to be deployed.
Areva has been mining uranium in Niger for more than fifty years and the company is the country’s single biggest investor.
According to a 2008 report by a French parliamentary committee, about 18 per cent of the raw material used to power France's 58 nuclear reactors came from Niger in 2008.