NIAMEY, Sept 17, 2010 (AFP) - France fears Al-Qaeda militants are hauling seven foreign hostages across the Sahara from Niger's uranium fields to desert hideouts in Mali, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Friday.
Speaking in Paris, Kouchner pointed the finger at Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) over Thursday's raid, in which five French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan working for French firms were taken.
"One could imagine that it's the same groups, at least the AQIM movement," Kouchner said in an interview with Europe 1 radio, adding that he feared it was the same gang that had murdered a French hostage in July.
"But I can't be certain, because no-one has claimed responsibility."
The hostages were seized in the early hours from their homes in Arlit, a mining town in northern Niger, according to their employers, the French nuclear giant Areva and construction firm Satom, a subsidiary of Vinci.
The hostages include a French married couple, and officials in Niger say the kidnappers were a highly mobile gang of Arabic-speaking gunmen equipped with four-wheel drive pick-ups.
"We think they're heading for Mali, but we don't really know. Surveillance has been stepped up. The Niger army is on a war footing. All our services have been put on alert," Kouchner said.
"Those who took these men and women could be Touaregs working to order. They will sell them to the terrorists, who are not themselves very numerous."
Arlit is a remote town in a region of northern Niger that is prey to armed bandits, nomadic Touareg rebels and Islamist militants linked to AQIM, the north African wing of Osama bin Laden's extremist network.
Kouchner said that other French workers based in Arlit, where Areva has a major uranium mine, would be transferred to Niger's capital Niamey for their own safety, but that local staff would continue to operate the mine.
State-owned Areva has worked in Niger, a former French colony, for 40 years. Uranium mined in Niger represents half the fuel used in France's vast nuclear energy industry, which provides 75 percent of the country's electricity.
Last month France declared it was "at war" with Al-Qaeda after the murder of a previous French hostage, 78-year-old Michel Germaneau, who was abducted in Niger in April and taken across the desert to a militant camp in Mali.
On July 22, French and Mauritanian commandos launched an assault on an Al-Qaeda base in Mali where they thought Germaneau was being held, killing seven militants. But they failed to find the hostage.
An AQIM commander later announced that their captive had been killed in revenge for the raid, but his body has not been found and French officials suspect he may already have been dead when the assault was launched.
In August, AQIM leader Abu Anas al-Shanqiti posted a message on a jihadi website threatening France and President Nicolas Sarkozy with vengeance.
"To the enemy of Allah, Sarkozy, I say: You have missed your opportunity and opened the gates of trouble," he said, urging attacks on the "apostate traitors, the sons and agents of Christian France."
France responded by updating its domestic security measures and issuing a travel warning urging citizens to avoid the Sahel region of Africa between Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad in which AQIM operates.