World News

Mauritania says 12 Qaeda fighters killed in clash

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Mauritanian military forces killed 12 members of al Qaeda’s North African wing and suffered six fatalities in fighting along the border with Mali, the Defence Ministry said on Saturday.

The clash is the latest sign of an escalation in the battle between Saharan countries and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the chief suspect in the kidnapping of seven foreigners, including five French citizens, in Niger on Thursday.

“(The army) spotted a group of terrorists in armed vehicles heading towards the border with our sister country Mali with clear intent to attack our positions,” the ministry statement released in the capital Nouakchott said.

It said 12 AQIM members were killed in the ensuing clash, with six of its own troops dying in fighting which lasted from Friday to early Saturday.

The French Foreign Ministry said there was no connection to Thursday’s kidnappings, in which a French employee of nuclear firm Areva and his wife were seized.

“This action is independent of the kidnapping of Areva employees. There are no French forces on the ground,” a ministry spokesman said in Paris.

The seven hostages are believed to have been taken to Mali, a source in the Nigerien military told Reuters after an army search operation on Friday.

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 areas along Algeria’s coast.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed in July to punish AQIM for executing a 78-year-old French hostage after a joint Franco-Mauritanian commando raid failed to free him. AQIM has said it would avenge its fighters killed in the raid.

The group has not claimed responsibility for Thursday’s kidnapping of foreigners in Niger’s northern uranium mining zone, which has raised fresh doubts about the security of Western mining operations in the region.

Neither France nor the mining firms gave details of how the workers were seized but a local businessman and a source in the mining industry in Niger told Reuters the foreigners were taken while they slept in their houses in the town of Arlit.

Among the hostages were five employees of Vinci, whose subsidiary Sogea-Satom is a contractor in the region.

The French Foreign Ministry urged its nationals on Friday to quit danger zones in Niger and an Areva executive said the company had called some of its staff back from Arlit.

Areva employs 2,500, the bulk of them locals, at three mine sites in Niger. Niger hopes to become the world’s No. 2 uranium producer when the Imouraren mine comes on line in 2013 or 2014.

Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalaatchi in Niamey; Tim Hepher in Paris; writing by Mark John; Editing by David Stamp