Monday, 20 September 2010

Seven kidnapped by 'local bandits' in Arlit, northern Niger

Seven foreigners, including five French nationals, were kidnapped in the uranium mining town of Arlit in northern Niger in the small hours of Thursday 16th September. The identities of those abducted and the precise circumstances of their abduction are still not clear. Fuller details will be given in Menas Associates' forthcoming issue of Sahara Focus.

Niger is the world's fourth largest uranium producer, with most of its uranium coming from two mines owned by French nuclear company Areva, and located close to the town of Arlit.

All seven abducted were employees of either Areva, or the construction company Sogea-Satom, which is a subsidiary of Vinci, that was reportedly undertaking certain earth-moving operations for Areva. Five of those abducted were French nationals; the other two were from Madagascar and Togo.

Two of the French nationals are a husband and wife. The husband is an employee of Areva. It is not clear whether the wife is also an employee of Areva, as reported in some media, or merely accompanying her husband. According to information from Areva, it appears that only the husband is actually their employee. The other three French nationals are reported to be working for Vinci, as are the two from Madagascar and Togo.

Although this incident took place outside Algeria's national borders, and is not only part of the Algerian 'security complex', we have good reason to believe that its operation is likely to be known to Algeria's intelligence service, which has long had a high presence in the region.

We have been receiving information from our sources in the region throughout most of Thursday 16th. Although we do not know the identities of the kidnappers, we can pass on the following information, but we do emphasise that this information should be regarded as no more than well informed local opinion.


> the high level of political insecurity in this region as a result of the recent Tuareg rebellion and its fragmentation into a number of rebel movements

> the presence of AQIM

> the rapidly escalating level of banditry (and 'criminality')

> the collapse of traditional livelihoods since 2003, notably those associated with the tourism industry

> the provocative actions of Algerian DRS elements; and

> the escalation of drug trafficking across the region - local opinion is that the kidnappers could be 'almost anyone'.

No one has yet claimed responsibility. Eye witness accounts, cited by Niger government spokesman Laouali Dan Dahdit, said that up to 30 people, speaking Arabic and Tamasheq (the local Tuareg Berber dialect), were involved. Niger security sources confirm that there was “something of a commotion” with a lot of 4x4 vehicle activity in the town at the time.

Eye witnesses said that the abduction took place in the middle of Arlit, with the abductors going directly to the homes of the people taken, “as if they knew precisely where they were”. One eye witness told Reuters, “They went to their houses and grabbed them. They knew exactly where they were – it is very worrying”.

The consensus of speculation among our sources in the region is that the kidnappers are most likely to be 'local bandits', and quite probably young Tuareg former rebels of the effectively disbanded Mouvement des NigĂ©riens pour la Justice (MNJ) who are now driven primarily by the need for money – “vehicles, arms, beautiful women – and adventure”. These young Tuareg are mixing and engaging with the many predominantly-Arab drug trafficking and local 'war-lord' networks that are now becoming well established in the region to the immediate south and west of the border town of Assamakka.

We have spoken with close associates of Rhissa Ag Boula, leader of the splinter Front des forces de redressement (FFR), who in 2007 had talked about launching a war on the uranium mines. We are absolutely certain that neither he nor his immediate associates are involved.

We are reliably informed that many of these 'ex-rebels' are now living in and around Tamanrasset, with the DRS fully aware of their presence. Indeed, it is suggested to us that the Algerian authorities are knowingly providing 'protection' to these bandits as part of Algeria's policy of destabilising northern Niger (and Mali).

It is believed by local sources that the motive of the abductors is unlikely to be political, in the sense of being either 'jihadist', anti-French or anti-Areva, although there has been long-term animosity towards Areva in the region. Rather, it is thought that the motive is financial, and that the abductors will try and 'sell' their captives to AQIM – most likely in Mali. This is a similar scenario to the capture of Michel Germaneau who was seized by two local 'bandits' in April in the In Abangerit area to the south-south-west of Arlit.

However, some media analysts are already speculating that the attack may, in fact, be 'political' to the extent that local militants are directly targeting France's extensive uranium mining investments in the region following President Nicolas Sarkozy's declaration of 'war' against AQIM. This was in response to AQIM's 24th July claim that it had executed Germaneau in response to France's botched raid into Mali on 22nd July, which was ostensibly to liberate the French hostage.

However, there is no evidence that Germaneau was executed, and many believe that he might have already died as a result of being denied medicinal drugs for a heart condition.

However, the main question raised by ourselves and our sources, is why these people were not living under greater security protection. Arlit has always been a dangerous mining town and over the last few years has become exceptionally hazardous. Any foreigner in the town or region is at great risk. Even local people are now declining to travel through this part of Niger.

For more news and expert analysis about Algeria please see Algeria Focus and Algeria Politics & Security.

For more news and expert analysis about the Sahara region, please see Sahara Focus.

© 2010 Menas Associates

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