Suspected Islamist militants staged twin attacks on an army barracks and a uranium mine owned by French nuclear company Areva in Niger on May 23 in the latest wave of violence in the Sahel region of west Africa.
The Financial Times reported that a car bomb exploded at about 5:30 a.m. local time at an army base in Agadez, the largest city in northern Niger. Militants then engaged troops in a gun battle. At least 20 soldiers were killed and 16 injured, Niger’s defense minister Mahamadou Karidjo told reporters.
In a separate attack, one person was killed and 14 were injured when a car bomb exploded at Areva’s Somaïr uranium mine, in Arlit. The Niger government said the plant was damaged and production shut down.
“France utterly condemns these attacks which this morning targeted the Niger army at Agadez and a mining site run by a French company at Arlit,” the foreign ministry in Paris said.
Niger is the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium, accounting for nearly 10 percent of global output, according to the World Nuclear Association. Areva’s mines in the country form a key source of supply for France’s nuclear generation industry.
Niger borders Mali, where France intervened in January to oust an alliance of Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). About 650 Nigerian troops are part of an African force helping France keep northern Mali secure.
To the north is Algeria, where another jihadi group attacked a gas plant run by BP, Statoil and the Algerian state-run energy company Sonatrac in January, killing at least 27 foreign workers.
The harsh desert conditions and porous borders in the Sahel have made it easy for militants to move between countries.
A Nigerian government spokesman, Morou Amadou, said that Islamist rebels who had operated in Mali were responsible for the raids, The Financial Times reported.
In the Agadez attack, a suicide bomber reportedly drove through an army checkpoint before detonating his explosives. Other militants were following close behind and fired on soldiers.
At the Areva mine, witnesses said that a man driving a 4x4 packed with explosives forced the car into the mine complex when the gates were opened to allow in workers. The bomb was then detonated.
“The group condemns this heinous attack against our personnel,” Areva said. “Our thoughts are with the victims, their families, as well as all of our employees present in Niger.”
Amadou, the government spokesman, told France Inter radio that crushing and grinding units at the mine were damaged.
Areva operates two uranium mines in Niger, near Arlit, and is due to open a third at Imouraren in 2015. The company, which employs 2,700 people in Niger, removed most of its expatriate workers from the country in 2010 after the kidnap of seven employees of one of its subsidiaries by AQIM. Four of the hostages are still being held by the militants.
The company increased security in February, after the intervention in Mali, but said that Nigerian security forces were responsible for keeping the mine secure.