* Twenty soldiers killed, 16 wounded in barracks attack
* MUJWA militant group claims responsibility
* Hollande says France will defend its interests
By Abdoulaye Massalatchi
NIAMEY, May 23 Islamist suicide bombers struck
an army barracks and a French-run uranium mine in Niger on
Thursday, officials said, killing 21 people and wounding dozens
more in attacks that showed militant violence spreading in West
The coordinated dawn assaults on Areva's mine at
Arlit and the military base in Agadez were claimed by the MUJWA
militant group in retaliation for a French-led offensive this
year against Islamist insurgents in neighbouring Mali.
The attacks suggested Malian groups, despite the French
campaign, remained capable of complex strikes against
high-profile targets in remote parts of the vast Sahara.
In Agadez, the largest town in Niger's desert north, at
least 20 soldiers were killed and 16 injured when suicide
bombers attacked the barracks, Defence Minister Mahamadou
Karidjo told state radio. Three Islamists were also killed.
After a fierce gunbattle, security forces restored calm.
"The situation is under control," Karidjo told state radio.
"The armed forces reaffirm their commitment to defend Niger and
its people, whatever the price."
One Islamist fighter, who held out inside a barracks in
Agadez and was believed to be holding several military cadets
hostage, was finally "neutralised" by Nigerien anti-terrorism
units late on Thursday, a senior military official told Reuters.
"I don't know if he was taken alive, but apparently he
didn't have any hostages. He was just making us think that to
trick us," the official said.
Farther north in Arlit, at least 14 civilians were wounded
and two Islamists killed in a car bomb attack at Areva's Somair
mine, the largest in the country, the minister said. Areva said
later one of its wounded staff died after the assault.
Niger officials said the grinding unit had been badly
damaged at the Somair mine, which is an important part of
France's energy supply chain. Niger provides
about one-fifth of the uranium for France's nuclear reactors.
MUJWA and al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM had pledged to
strike at French interests across the region after Paris
launched a ground and air campaign in January that broke their
10-month grip over the northern two-thirds of Mali.
President Francois Hollande said France would do everything
in its power to defend its interests in Niger.
"We will let nothing pass and will support Niger's
authorities to end the hostage-taking and to annihilate the
group that carried out these attacks," he told reporters.
FRENCH INTERESTS AT RISK
Niger's president, Mahamadou Issoufou, who has emerged as a
strong ally of France and the United States against Islamists in
the region, cancelled a trip to an African Union summit in
Ethiopia. He has declared a 72-hour period of mourning.
The United States has stationed drone surveillance aircraft
in Niger and deployed military personnel there to train West
African forces before their deployment in Mali.
Niger has played a leading role in the African regional
mission in Mali, sending 650 troops. Its barracks in the Malian
town of Menaka was unsuccessfully targeted this month by a
suicide bomber, part of a wave of recent attacks.
France's intervention in Mali has sparked threats to its
interests in Africa. Last month, its embassy in Tripoli was
car-bombed and a French family was kidnapped in Cameroon in
February by Islamist sect Boko Haram, which cited the war in
Mali. The seven hostages were released last month.
At least 37 foreigners were also killed during a mass
hostage-taking by al Qaeda militants in January at the giant In
Amenas gas plant in Algeria in response to the French offensive.
"The most recent attack will probably prompt France to
bolster the security of its industrial assets and civilians in
the Sahel region, bringing with it financial concerns," global
risk consultancy Stratfor wrote in a report on Thursday.
Niger itself is no stranger to Islamist raids. Seven
workers, including five French nationals, were kidnapped in 2010
by AQIM in remote Arlit, which is 1,200 km (750 miles) north of
the capital, Niamey. AQIM still holds four of the Frenchmen.
But Thursday's bold attacks were the first in Niger since
the French-led offensive drove Islamist insurgents across
borders into neighbouring Sahel states, stirring fears of a
radicalisation of the traditionally moderate region.
The official ANP state news agency, citing unnamed sources,
said the militants had entered Niger via lawless southern Libya,
carrying explosive belts that they used in their attack.