Al-Qaeda’s north African branch has released a video depicting seven kidnapped Westerners. The video was received by Mauritanian news agency ANI, which indicates that all the captives seemed to be in good health. France’s Foreign Ministry has announced that the hostage video seems to be “credible.”
The newly released video depicts seven hostages, including four Frenchmen and a Dutchman, who were kidnapped from a uranium compound in northern Niger exactly three years ago; along with a Swede and a South African who were abducted from a hostel in Timbuktu in northern Mali November 2011 in an attack that left a German man dead. In the video, which was released to Mauritanian news agency ANI, Frenchman Daniel Larribe, 61, introduces himself as the head of the French group, stating that he was kidnapped by militants belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). According to ANI, Mr. Larribe states that he is “…in good health but threatened with death,” adding that he holds the French authorities responsible for his fate. The video also includes statements from the other French hostages, including Pierre Legrand, Theirry Dol and Marc Feret as well as South African Stephen Malcolm, Dutchman Sjaak Rijke and Swede Johna Gustafsson. It also shows the French hostages reportedly urging the French administration, as well as their family members, to work for their release. At the time of their kidnapping, the four Frenchmen were mostly working for French public nuclear giant Areva and its subcontractor Satom. They were kidnapped in Arlit, northern Niger, on 16 September 2010. At the time, Daniel’s wife, Francoise Larribe, was also captured however she was released in 2011.
Although it remains unclear when the video was made, officials from ANI have indicated that the messages recorded by the French hostages were made in June of this year. Furthermore, this is the first video that is said to depict the men since France launched an intervention in Mali in January after al-Qaeda-linked militants threatened to overrun the capital Bamako.
According French Foreign Ministry spokesman, Philippe Lalliot, “based on an initial analysis, the video seems credible to us and provides new proof of life of the four French hostages kidnaped in Arlit (northern Niger) on September 16, 2010,” adding that the footage was being authenticated.
AQIM is currently believed to be holding eight European hostages, including five French nationals. According to French prosecutors, one of the French hostages, Philippe Verdon, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2011 and found dead earlier this year, was executed with a shot to the head. Officials in France believe that his killing was in retaliation to France’s intervention in Mali. A fifth hostage, Serge Lazarevic, was kidnapped along with Mr. Verdon from their hotel in Hombori on the night of 24 November 2011. Shortly after their kidnapping, the families of the two men insisted that they were not mercenaries or secret service agents. These comments were in response to threats made by AQIM militants stating that the two hostages would be killed as they were French spies.
While the newly released video depicts the pleas of the French hostages for their release, it is highly unlikely that the French government will get involved, and that their plight will be publicly discussed. Although in July of this year French President Francois Hollande announced that France was “doing everything” to bring the hostages back, he indicated that officials would “…not talk so as not to complicate a situation which is bad enough.”
On the ground sources have indicated that gunfire broke out at a paramilitary barracks in Niamey, the capital of Niger, with sporadic shots lasting for about one hour. According to statements from local residents, “the shooting began around 21:30 local time (2030 GMT).” Sporadic gunfire could be heard for an hour and then the sounds of shooting stopped. At the beginning of this year, the camp hosted troops from Chad who were at the time on transit to Mali where they have since fought jihadist militants alongside French and West African forces.
Military and government officials could not be reached in order to provide further details, and it was not immediately possible to indicate whether the gunfire was linked to a number of recent attacks in the country which have been carried by Islamist militants. Since the incident, the area around the gendarmerie camp in the northern regions of the capital has been almost deserted. A jeep carrying paramilitary members was seen travelling in the direction of the city centre. A road block has also been set up at the road which heads to the northern part of the city.
With a number of violent attacks occurring in northern Niger of the past month, citizens of the country have begun to express fears of a “war on terror” in their homeland. Tensions were raised by two suicide bombings on May 23 in the north of Niger. The attacks targeted an army base in Agadez and a uranium mine at Arlit which is run by French nuclear giant Areva. More than twenty people were killed in those attacks. Earlier this month, government officials confirmed that twenty convicts escaped during a jailbreak from a prison in Niamey.
Responsibility for both suicide attacks, the first to have occurred in the west African country, have been claimed by two armed Islamist groups: the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Signatories in Blood. Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reported to have organized the two bombings, has threatened to attack Niger again, together with any other country that has troops stationed in Mali, where a French-led military intervention launched in January has seized back control of the northern towns from groups linked to al-Qaeda.
In a rare show of unity, Mali’s main political parties have welcomed the interim government’s announcement of the 28 July 2013 presidential elections. Meanwhile in neighbouring Niger, French nuclear group Areva has indicated that operations at its uranium mine will continue as usual despite last week’s terrorist attacks. While France’s top diplomat has urged neighbouring countries to find a solution to deal with the growing terrorist threat that is emerging from southern Libya.
The country’s interim cabinet official confirmed for the first time the date of the polls, which are seen as essential in restoring democracy after the country suffered a coup last year, which effectively paved the way for Islamist rebels to seize control of the northern region. Amadou Dire, a member of acting President Dioncounda Traore’s Alliance for Democracy in Mali has stated that “we need a short transition, we need an elected president to deal with the challenges and it was a good thing to make public the date of the presidential election.” The National Congress for Democratic Initiative, which was neutral in the coup but which had originally argued for a later vote, has come out in support of the decision to go ahead with the elections in July. A number of officials have indicated that the unity amongst the disparate parties over the date of the elections could be explained by the fact that there is a broad consensus that moving away from the transitional government is an urgent issue. President Traore was appointed interim president of Mali following the coup which occurred on 22 March 2012 and which precipitated the fall of northern Mali to the Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists. However the Tuareg rebels were soon overpowered by the Islamist militants, who imposed an extreme form of Sharia law throughout the region. Fifteen presidential hopefuls have announced their candidacy, including former prime ministers Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Modibo Sidibe. A number of other prominent political officials have also declared their candidacies. Polling booths are planned for the entire country, even the northeastern city of Kidal, which remains to be under the control of armed Tuareg separatists who have refused to consent to the presence of the Malian army and government in the region.
Meanwhile in neighbouring Niger, French nuclear group Areva has indicated that it will maintain its operations in the country despite last week’s deadly car bomb attack which occurred at its uranium mine. Areva president Luc Oursel confirmed that the company would be staying in Niger. Asked if the attack would lead to a change in Areva’s strategy in Arica, Mr. Oursel stated “no, of course not. We are obviously very sad about the death of one of our employees. We condemn this.” He further stated that “ I was in Niger, I went last week to show our determination to stay. If we leave Niger, we will do exactly what they wanted. We know our responsibility in terms of economic development, in terms of jobs.” Areva, which is the world’s second largest uranium producer, extracts more than a third of its uranium in Niger. It has operated in the country for more than forty years, operating to large mines in the northern regions of the country through two affiliated companies: Cominak and Somair. A car bomb attack that was carried out at Areva’s majority-owned uranium mine in Arlit in northern Niger last Thursday resulted in one person being killed and fourteen others injured. All of them were Nigerian nationals who were working at the facility. A second bombing was carried out that same day at an army base in Agadez, also in northern Niger. That resulted in twenty-four people being killed in addition to the eight attackers who were killed. Two Islamist groups have claimed responsibility for the attacks, calling them retaliations for Niger’s decision to deploy troops to Mali to help the French-led campaign against al-Qaeda-linked insurgents. Since the two suicide bombings, France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius has called on neighbouring countries in the region to work together in order to tackle threats from “terrorist groups.” His announcement comes just days after Niger’s President indicated that the Islamist militants were suspected of coming from southern Libya. According to President Mahamadou Issoufou, the raids in Niger had demonstrated that Libya was a source of regional instability, months after France launched an air-and-ground assault on northern Mali, which Paris warned had developed into a launchpad for attacks by al-Qaeda-linked groups. During a press conference, President Issoufou indicated that “according to the information we have, the attackers came from southern Libya.” He further indicated that “I know the Libyan authorities are trying hard. But Libya continues to be a source of instability.” Although he did not give details on who the gunmen were, Mokhtar Belmokhtar has stated that his brigade had organized the raid with the MUJAO militant group. However Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has since denied these claims. Thousands of gunmen and tons of weapons and ammunition flowed south, mainly to Mali, after the fall of Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. A mix of Islamist and separatist rebels then seized control of the northern region of Mali before the French operation launched in January dislodged them from the towns they controlled. According to a number of officials, in recent months southern Libya has become a safe haven for jihadists who have been forced from Mali. In recent weeks, Niger has increasingly warned that Libya was the next potential safe haven for militants. This has prompted France to urge Libya and its neighbors to deal accordingly with the growing threat. According to Laurent Fabius, “it seems we must make a special effort on southern Libya, which is also what Libya wants.” France’s top diplomat further indicated that he had discussed “measures that could be taken by neighbouring countries” in liaison with Libya to deal with possible actions by “terrorist groups.” Mr. Fabius added that “this is also what the Libyan prime minister wants…we will see how we can encourage joint action with the Libyans.”
Two simultaneous suicide car bombing attacks have been carried out during the early morning hours in Niger. The attacks, which occurred at around 5:30AM local time and have been claimed by Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), are believed to have been coordinated. Any individuals or companies that are currently in Niger are strongly advised to monitor the local reports and to remain extremely vigilant. Companies stationed in the regions where the attacks occurred are strongly advised to re-evaluate their security procedures, especially in quarters where workers are living, as further suicide attacks and kidnappings are likely to occur.
Niger’s Defence Minister has confirmed that at least nineteen individuals, including eighteen soldiers, have been killed with another sixteen injured after a suicide attack was carried out at a military installation in Agadez, Niger. The attack occurred when a car bomb was detonated outside the military base. Four attackers died and reports have indicated that a fifth attacker is currently holding four army officers hostages. On the ground reports have indicated that the army is patrolling in and around the city.
A second incident targeted a uranium mine, which is operated by French Areva. This attack resulted in fourteen civilians being injured and one killed. In a statement released this afternoon, Areva confirmed that all those injured in the bombing in Arlit were employees of the mine, further stating that operations at the mine had been “temporarily suspended.” The attack in Arlit comes three years after a 2010 incident where five Areva employees were kidnapped by militants linked to al-Qaeda’s Africa branch. In 2010, militants belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped seven foreigners, including five French nationals, from a residential compound located near Arlit. At the time of the incident, the victims were either working for Areva or other contracting companies in the region. In February 2011, three of the hostages, including one Frenchwoman, were freed. However AQIM is still holding the other four hostages and has repeatedly threatened to kill them in retaliation for the French-led military intervention in Mali which began in January 2013.
Today’s attacks have been claimed by MUJAO, in which a spokesman for the group, Abu Walid Sahraoui, stated that the operations targeted “the enemies of Islam in Niger.” He added that “we attacked France, and Niger because of its co-operation with France, in the war against Sharia,” indicating that Niger’s participation in the war in Mali was the reason behind the attack. French President Francois Hollande has vowed to protect his nation’s interests and co-operate with Niger in its “fight against terrorism.”
Over the past 24 hours, French fighter jets have continued to bombard supply bases located in northern Mali in order to flush out any Islamist rebels who are hiding out in the region. The additional bombings also comes at a time when Paris is placing added pressure on African troops to deploy as quickly as possible in order to take over the offensive. While all of the previously militant-controlled towns have been recaptured by French and Malian troops, MS Risk continues to advise vigilance throughout the country. Food and supplies in some parts of the north are beginning dwindle as many of the Arab and Tuareg traders have fled the region as a result of rising fears of reprisal attacks.
Amidst increasing fears that the rebels could re-group in the mountainous region, dozens of French fighter jets carried out massive air strikes on rebel logistics and training centers around Kidal over the weekend. The fighter jets focused on Tessalit, which is located about 200km (125 miles) north of Kidal, and which is the gateway to the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains. The bombings also focused on the mountainous region, which is located in the north-eastern area of the country, as it is believed that the terrain could provide the perfect hiding place for the militants. Speaking to the media in Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated that the militants “have taken refuge in the north and the northeast but they can only stay there long-term if they have ways to replenish their supplies. So the army, in a very efficient manner, is stopping them from doing so.” Since the French military intervention began in Mali several weeks ago, extremist fighters have been fleeing to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the Kidal region, near the Algerian border. Although they have been driven out from their strongholds by French and Malian soldiers, the operation has been complicated as it is currently believed that the militants may be holding seven French hostages in the mountainous region.
While Chadian and French forces continue to secure Kidal, the last militant stronghold in the north, France’s Foreign Minister has indicated that his country is keen to wrap up its leading role in the offensive, noting that French troops could rapidly withdraw from Timbuktu within weeks. France is now eager to pass the role over to some 8,000 African troops pledged for the UN-backed AFISMA force. However French President Francois Hollande stipulated during his visit to Mali over the weekend, that his country would not abandon Mali.
Meanwhile Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has confirmed that French special forces are protecting one of the country’s largest uranium mines. Officials in France have also confirmed that a dozen special forces reservists are currently strengthening security at the site. The special forces will be protecting Areva, a French company, which plays a major role within Niger’s mining industry. Areva is also the world’s fifth-largest producer of uranium. The added protection to the site comes as a result of increasing threats to Western, and French interests throughout Africa, coupled with the recent hostage situation in Algeria. The added security is also in light of the fact that three years ago, Islamist militants kidnapped five French workers at the mine in Arlit, Niger. Four of them are still being held, along with three other hostages. They are believed to be somewhere in the northern region of Mali, not far from where French troops are battling al-Qaeda-linked rebels.