Niger said it will step up its fight against Islamist militants in the country as a group linked to al-Qaeda said it took part in twin suicide car bombings yesterday that killed at least 23 people.
Eighteen soldiers died in an attack on a military base in Agadez, 738 kilometers (459 miles) northeast of the capital, Niamey, while at least 13 employees of French nuclear company Areva SA (AREVA) were injured in a simultaneous explosion at a mine it operates in the town of Arlit. The attack was the first of its kind in Niger, which accounts for 40 percent of France’s uranium imports, according to Stratfor, the Texas-based consulting firm.
“What happened at Agadez and Arlit indicates that we need more determination, more money and more action,” Niger Foreign Minister Mohammed Bazoum said in an interview with Radio France International. “I don’t think that Niger is targeted most specifically, but we are part of a group of countries that are all threatened in this region.”
Niger is the world’s fourth-biggest producer of uranium, the fuel used in nuclear power plants, according to the website of the World Nuclear Association. The West African nation shares borders with Mali, where French military forces intervened earlier this year to fight Islamist rebels, and Libya, where conflict after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 led to a proliferation of weapons and armed groups.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of the al-Moulathamoun Islamist movement linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, said his group participated in yesterday’s attacks, ANI Mauritania reported, citing a statement by Belmokhtar. The former Algerian soldier, who the UN says has experience in training camps in Afghanistan, is also known as Bellawar, or “One-Eyed,” and was involved in taking hostages at the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria in January.
Forces in Niger stepped up “security on all of our sites following the assault at about 5:30 a.m. local time at the Somair uranium mine near Arlit in the north,” Areva said in a statement.
The company, which produced more than 4,500 metric tons of uranium in Niger last year out of total production of 9,760 tons, increased security measures at its sites in Niger after seven workers employed by the company and a unit of Vinci SA (DG) were kidnapped in 2010, and again as French military forces intervened in Mali.
Areva owns 63.6 percent of Somair, the company that operates the mine, and the government of Niger owns the rest. The site produced 3,000 tons of uranium last year, the company said in December.
The French company also owns 34 percent of Cominak, another uranium mine in Niger, and is in talks to sell part of its majority stake in Imouraren SA, a third production site being developed in the country, to China National Nuclear Corp.
The attacks may affect the eventual sale price of the mine, Philip de Pontet, head of Africa research at Eurasia Group, said in an e-mailed research note.
“That asset may have already lost some of its value and Areva’s security spending will escalate sharply just to contain the threat to Somair and its other asset Cominak,” De Pontet said.
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