France orders special forces to protect Niger uranium: source
PARIS (Reuters) - France has ordered special forces to protect uranium sites run by state-owned Areva in Niger as the threat of attacks on its interests rises after its intervention against rebels in Mali, a military source said on Thursday.
Paris launched air strikes and sent hundreds of soldiers into Niger's neighbor Mali this month to drive back al-Qaeda-linked rebels it said could turn the West African country into a base for international attacks.
The insurgents have threatened to hit French targets across the Sahel region in revenge and, days after the French assault, militants stormed a desert gas plant in Algeria and took hostages.
The military source confirmed a report in weekly magazine Le Point that special forces and equipment would be sent to Areva's uranium production sites in Imouraren and Arlit very quickly, but declined to go into further details.
Defense ministry officials declined to comment on the report and Areva said it did not talk about security issues.
Seven workers, including five French nationals, were kidnapped in Arlit by al Qaeda's north African arm AQIM in September 2010. It later released three of the hostages but four French citizens are still being held.
An official at the defense ministry said that for the moment Nigerien authorities had not yet approved the measure.
"It's true that the terrorist threat has increased today, but as far as I know there is no such agreement in place at the moment."
Areva, Niger's biggest single investor, has about 2,700 workers in Niger and is planning to start up a third mine in Imouraren.
The planned startup of production in Imouraren was delayed to 2013 or 2014 from 2012, following the kidnappings and a labor dispute.
A Niger army officer said that there were already security arrangements agreed with France since 2011 after the kidnappings in Arlit and they had been reinforced over time.
"We also have our counter-terrorism units in the Agadez region," he said. "For now, I don't know of a decision by the Nigerien government to allow French special forces to base themselves in the north."
An Areva spokeswoman said this month the French government had not asked the company to reduce staffing in Niger. She added Areva has an extensive security plan for its employees and that the plan has been reviewed by the French authorities.
Areva has been mining uranium in Niger for more than five decades and the country provides one third of the group's uranium supplies.
According to a parliamentary committee enquiring into France's supplies of uranium, about 18 percent of the raw material used to power France's 58 nuclear reactors came from Niger in 2008.
French utility EDF, that runs all of the country's power reactors declined to comment on the current share.