DAKAR/PARIS The abduction of two French nationals from an expatriate bar in Niger's capital shows groups tied to al Qaeda can extend their operations beyond their desert bases into Africa's city centers.
France declared the wider Sahel region unsafe after the pair were found dead following a failed rescue bid on Saturday. [nLDE70805L]
The attack will prompt aid groups and mining firms to review how they work in the impoverished but resource-rich zone.
While no claim for the abduction has been made, Paris said it was most likely linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose hostages until now have tended to be plucked from more remote, lawless zones of the arid region.
"There are concerns about other hostage-takings and we can fear in the longer term the birth of 'Africa al Qaeda'," Roland Jacquard, head of France's International Terrorism Observatory, told LCI Television of a potential region-wide threat.
The two victims -- a 25-year-old aid worker and a childhood friend who had flown out for a visit -- were snatched from the "Toulousain" bar in downtown Niamey by several men who a witness said carried automatic weapons and wore turbans.
The pair were later found dead after French special forces backed a bid by Niger to intercept them by the border with Mali, where AQIM is holding five French nationals after a hostage-taking in northern Niger last year.
Those abductions last September in a uranium-mining zone key to France's nuclear industry marked a penetration by Qaeda allies into new territory. Analysts said Friday's assault showed they could work virtually anywhere in the area.
"In the heart of Niamey, in its most famous, most select district, foreigners were abducted," Louis Caprioli, former head of France's anti-terrorism unit, told French RFI radio.
"There is a real presence in Niger and Mali but the mid-term fear is that it will reach Burkina Faso, Nigeria and other countries of the region," he said of a zone stretching south of the Sahara from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east.
Hard intelligence is scant but analysts say AQIM's Saharan wing numbers a few hundred fighters operating in the vast desert region of northeastern Mauritania, northern Mali and Niger.
Justified by AQIM as action against Western "crusaders," the kidnappings have not only earned the group millions of dollars from ransom payments but have nurtured a market for freelance gunmen to seize foreigners and pass them on to the Islamists.
France, which has 1,500 nationals in Niger and a further 8,500 in Mali and Mauritania, warned on Sunday that nowhere in its three ex-colonies could now be considered safe and advised French travelers to avoid the Sahel.
There was no immediate comment from French nuclear group Areva CEPFi.PA, whose employees were among those abducted last September, on implications for its operations in Niger.
But aid groups who deployed in strength last year to avert an all-out famine in the drought-prone region said it would inevitably affect how they operate.
"To my mind this will hugely influence the behavior of people on the ground," said Aboubacry Tall, West and Central Africa regional director for Save the Children UK.
The other factor will be the response of authorities and whether it alters a policy which in many cases has led to discreet ransoms being paid for the safe return of victims.
Caprioli suggested Niger's joint decision with France to confront the kidnappers was an effort to take tough action after a humiliating breach of internal security.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Saturday the abduction strengthened French resolve to fight what he called "barbaric terrorism." Analysts said the speed with which France dispatched locally-based forces suggested a harder line that could extend to dealings over the five nationals still being held hostage.
"For the group holding the other five, it could be read that France is possibly desensitized to the prospect of sacrificing the hostages," said Anne Giudicelli of Paris-based Terrorisc consultancy.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)