NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Attackers in Niger detonated two car bombs at dawn on Thursday, one in the city of Agadez where a military barracks was targeted and one in Arlit where a French company operates a uranium mine, injuring more than a dozen people.
Paris-based nuclear giant Areva said in a statement that 13 employees were hurt in the attack in Arlit, in the northern part of Niger where in 2010, al-Qaida's branch in Africa kidnapped five French citizens working for the mining company. Residents in the two towns said that both attacks occurred at around 5:30 a.m., indicating a level of coordination among the attackers.
Alhousseiny Moussa, a resident of Agadez, was already awake and just away from his local mosque for the first prayer of the day, when he heard the boom coming from the city's military camp. "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. It was right at 5:30 a.m.," he said.
Another resident of Agadez, a city perched on the edge of the Sahara desert, said the car bomb startled him awake: "We heard a strong detonation that woke the whole neighborhood, it was so powerful," explained Abdoulaye Harouna. "The whole town is now surrounded by soldiers looking for the attackers."
No group immediately claimed responsibility for Thursday's attacks, but because Niger shares a border with the troubled nation of Mali, whose north was occupied for most of last year by fighters loyal to al-Qaida, residents and government officials assume the attackers are Islamic extremists, possibly from the Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, which has led repeated suicide attacks inside Mali. The militants vowed to hit any country that helped France, which launched a military offensive in Mali in January to flush out the jihadists.
Niger sent 650 troops to try to stabilize Mali. If the attack was carried out by one of the Mali-based groups, it would be the single largest attack that they have carried out both in terms of casualties and due to the simultaneous nature of the explosions. In recent weeks they attempted to carry out a similar style of assault, with kamikaze fighters detonating themselves in the Malian towns of Gossi and Menaka, but the attackers killed only themselves.
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa and groups allied with them succeeded in seizing a France-sized territory in northern Mali in 2012. They set up their own administration in all the major towns in the north. For nearly a decade before that, they used remote bases in Mali to train fighters and to hold the European hostages they plucked — many of them from Niger. In 2008, they grabbed two Canadians on the outskirts of Niger's capital, including diplomat Robert Fowler, who was the United Nations special envoy and who was held for 130 days before a ransom was paid for his release. Two years later, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb infiltrated the northern mining town of Arlit, which was the scene of Thursday's car bombing, grabbing seven employees of French nuclear giant Areva, or of their contractors.
Four of them, all French nationals, are still being held by the cell and their whereabouts are unknown. 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."
In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry condemned the attacks but said it was too early to give a definitive toll. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke with his counterpart in Niger and said France was ready to offer any assistance needed. Although the statement did not say who was responsible for the attacks, it added that France fully supports Niger's "fight against terrorist groups."
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Sarah DiLorenzo contributed to this report from Paris.