NIAMEY (Reuters) - Tuareg-led rebels in Niger seized four French employees of a French-run uranium mine on Sunday in an abduction they said showed the country's government could not guarantee the safety of foreign mining operations.
Niger's government said the four, who worked for the French nuclear group Areva at its Cominak mine at Arlit in the north of the West African country, were kidnapped by "armed bandits", the term it usually uses to refer to the rebels.
The rebel Niger Justice Movement (MNJ) said it carried out the kidnapping as a warning to foreign mining companies. It said it was responding to a public pledge made by Niger's government earlier this month that it would provide military protection to growing foreign investments in uranium mining and oil.
"The sole aim of this commando operation is to bring the mining partners in our country back to reality," the MNJ said in a posting on its Website www.m-n-j.blogspot.com.
"These (abducted) persons are not in any danger from the MNJ, which will release them from today to the Red Cross if it wishes," said the rebel movement, whose desert fighters launched a rebellion last year in Niger's uranium-producing north.
In Paris, a spokesman for Areva's mining division said: "We know that they have been kidnapped by the MNJ."
Asked whether Areva had received any demand from the rebel group, spokesman Yves Dufour said: "Not at all. The only information we have regarding the MNJ is what is on their blog."
"What we know is that our members of staff are in good health and the only hope we have is that what is being said in the blog about their being freed very soon will become a reality," Dufour added.
The MNJ says it is fighting for greater autonomy for the northern Agadez region and for a bigger share of the region's wealth for local people. In 2007, the group briefly kidnapped an executive of a Chinese uranium company.
EXPANDING URANIUM INDUSTRY
The MNJ said the French were seized in a raid on the Cominak facility. This mine and the Somair mine also operated by Areva are currently Niger's only active uranium mines, producing around 3,500 tonnes a year of the radioactive mineral that is used to make nuclear fuel.
But the government and a local Areva spokesman said the French were abducted while walking in the town of Arlit.
"We lost sight of them at around 1400 hours in the town, they didn't come back for lunch as usual," Areva spokesman Moussa Soeley told Reuters in Niger.
"Everything is being done to make sure the people concerned are freed quickly," Niger's interior ministry said in a statement confirming the kidnapping.
Niger hopes to become the world's No. 2 uranium producer by 2011 by increasing overall output to 9,000-10,000 tonnes a year through development of the Imouraren deposit with Areva, and of the Teguida mine in cooperation with the China Nuclear International Uranium Corp. (Sino-U).
The uranium sector in Niger was long dominated by former colonial power France but is now being opened up to companies from China, Canada, United States and Japan.
At least 200 rebels and 70 government troops have been killed in a year of inconclusive on-off fighting between the MNJ rebels and the army.
Earlier this month, Niger's government ruled out peace negotiations with the Tuareg-led insurgents unless they first laid down their arms, saying they were bandits with no legitimate demands. (Additional reporting by Marie Maitre in Paris; Writing by Pascal Fletcher and Ingrid Melander; Editing by Giles Elgood)