NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Suicide bombers in Niger detonated two car bombs simultaneously on Thursday, one inside a military camp in the city of Agadez and another in the remote town of Arlit at a French-operated uranium mine, killing a total of 26 people and injuring 30, according to officials in Niger and France.
A surviving attacker took a group of soldiers hostage, and authorities were attempting to negotiate their release.
The timing of the attacks, which occurred at the same moment more than 100 miles apart, and the fact that the bombers were able to penetrate both a well-guarded military installation and a sensitive, foreign-operated uranium mine, highlight the growing reach and sophistication of the Islamic extremists based in neighboring Mali. Both attacks were claimed by a spinoff of al-Qaida, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, which earlier vowed to avenge the four-month-old French-led military intervention which ousted them from town's in Mali's north.
The most deaths were in the desert city of Agadez, located almost 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) northeast of the capital, where the attackers punched their explosive-laden car past the defenses at a military garrison and detonated inside the base, killing 20 soldiers and injuring 16 others, said Niger's Minister of Defense Mahamadou Karidjo at a hastily assembled press conference in Niamey on Thursday. Three suicide bombers also died, but a fourth escaped and grabbed a group of military cadets, said Interior Minister Abdou Labo.
Draped in an explosive belt, the attacker was threatening to blow himself up along with his hostages, said Labo, who could not confirm how many cadets were being held. Almost 12 hours later, the military was still negotiating with the suicide bomber for their release.
At the same time the Agadez attack occurred, more than 240 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of Agadez, a different group of suicide bombers slipped past a truck entering a uranium mine operated by French nuclear giant Areva. The car exploded once inside the campus, injuring 14 employees of the French company, one of whom died later, according to a statement by the French corporation and witnesses. Two suicide bombers were also killed, said the ministry of defense.
In January when France scrambled war planes over Mali and sent in thousands of ground troops to try to take back the country's al-Qaida-held north, the extremists vowed to hit back not just at French interests, but also at the African governments that helped them. The bomb blasts on Thursday are the most damaging attacks by the Mali-based jihadists to date, and succeeded in hitting both an important French asset and the military of Niger, which sent 650 troops to Mali to help France combat the Islamists.
Hitting Arlit is especially symbolic. Niger produces up to 40 percent of France's uranium imports — a consider amount as the European country derives 80 percent of its energy from nuclear power, according to an analysis released Thursday by global intelligence unit, Stratfor.
French President Francois Hollande told reporters during a visit to Germany that he will take every measure to protect French assets. "We will also protect our interests, because Arlit is an interest of a large French company: Areva. May everyone understand it well — that we will not let anything happen, and will support the Nigeriens' efforts to halt this hostage-taking and destroy the group behind these attacks."
Up until Thursday's twin attacks, some security analysts had doubted the strength of groups like MUJAO, which has carried out repeated suicide attacks in Mali since January with varying degrees of success. Several of the kamikaze operations killed only the bomber. The government of Niger decreed a 72-hour period of national mourning following the heavy toll from Thursday's attack.
Residents in the two towns remarked on how closely coordinated the attacks appear to have been, taking place just moments apart at 5:30 a.m., a time when many in this majority-Muslim nation are laying their carpets toward Mecca in the first of the day's five prayers.
Alhousseiny Moussa, a resident of Agadez, was walking to the mosque to pray shortly before 5:30 a.m. when he heard the boom. "I heard the explosion and immediately after, I heard a volley of gunfire. The area where it happened was inside the military camp and it's now been roped off so we cannot go in.," he said.
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa and groups allied with them seized the northern half of Mali in April of last year. They pushed into the major towns, setting up their own administration and alarming western nations who saw it as precursor to a new Afghanistan. In fact for nearly a decade before that, they had already made themselves at home in Mali, using its remote, and lawless northern reaches to train fighters and to hold the European hostages they kidnapped — including many from Niger. In 2008, they grabbed two Canadians on the outskirts of Niger's capital, including United Nations special envoy Robert Fowler, who was held for 130 days before a ransom was negotiated. Two years later, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb infiltrated the mining town of Arlit, which was the scene of Thursday's car bombing, grabbing seven employees of French company Areva, and one of its contractors, SATOM, as well as the wife of one of the workers.
Four of them — all French nationals — are still being held by the terror cell more than two years later. The terror group has repeatedly threatened to execute them in retaliation for the French-led intervention in Mali.
On Thursday at 5:30 a.m., an all-terrain Toyota sports-utility vehicle penetrated the SOMAIR mine, where Areva is extracting uranium in Arlit, located 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) to the north of the capital, Niamey, according to residents. The car exploded not far from the machinery used at the mine.
"We saw a car enter the factory and immediately it exploded," said Agoumou Idi, a worker inside the factory who was reached by telephone. "The terrorists, probably from MUJAO, took advantage of the fact that the entrance gate was open in order to let in a truck carrying the next shift of workers. They used that opening to enter the heart of our factory and explode their vehicle."
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Angela Charlton, Jamey Keaten and Sarah DiLorenzo contributed to this report from Paris.