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NIAMEY/PARIS, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda’s North African wing has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of five French workers in Niger last week, Arabic news channel Al Jazeera reported on its website on Tuesday.
The Niger government earlier said the kidnappers had links to al Qaeda’s North African arm.
“Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claims the kidnapping of five French nationals in Niger several days ago,” the channel reported.
Seven foreigners were kidnapped in Niger’s northern uranium mining zone on Thursday: the five French citizens, and nationals from Togo and Madagascar.
Al Jazeera did not mention the other hostages.
The Niger kidnappings are the latest in a string in the Sahel region of Africa that have been claimed by AQIM, but until now the militants had not staged any operations in the part of Niger where the five French nationals were abducted.
“On the basis of clues so far, we can say that the group behind this unacceptable abduction is affiliated to the group of Abu Zeid, who in turn is linked to the shadowy al Qaeda network,” Niger government spokesman Mahamadou Dan Dah.
Abu Zeid leads one of two factions of the group in the Sahara zone. Accused of killing a British hostage last year and a 78-year-old Frenchmen in July, he is seen as more of a hardcore ideologue.
Until now, there had been no claim of responsibility for the kidnappings, which took place in the northern mining town of Arlit and involved employees of the French firms Areva CEFPi.PA and Vinci (SGEF.PA).
A source close to the Niger government said on Saturday that around 100 French specialists in anti-terrorism had arrived in Niger to help hunt for the hostages. [ID:nLDE68I0I3]
French daily newspaper Le Monde on Tuesday published on its website a letter dated Sept. 1 sent from Niger authorities to Areva and other companies operating in the danger zone warning of the risk of kidnappings after foiling an attack two weeks earlier.
“In these difficult conditions, you will understand the threat from AQIM is to be taken seriously,” the letter from Arlit’s prefect said.
Security experts say al Qaeda allies are building a base in the desert region that straddles the porous and thinly policed borders of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania after being squeezed out of traditional patches along Algeria’s coast.