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October 13, 2010

Niger Uneasy About French Troops Tracking Abductions

French troops are in Niger to help search for hostages abducted by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida.

The hostages abducted last month from Niger's huge French uranium mine are now thought to be in neighboring Mali. So there is no on-the-ground hunt for the hostages here. Instead, the 80 French troops in Niger's capital are conducting aerial surveillance of the group known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb along Mali's border with Algeria.

The head of the French military, Edouard Guillaud, says there are no immediate plans to use those troops to help free the hostages.

For the moment, he says, French forces in the Sahel are here to support diplomacy.

The strain of the kidnapping and the deployment of French troops has caused some tension between Niger's military government, France, and the French energy firm Areva.

Regional diplomats here say there is an unhappy cooperation with the French deployment. Niger's government knows it can not refuse the troops because this is not Niger's fight. There is an acknowledgement that terrorism has hurt tourism and could threaten future investment. The hope, diplomats say, is that al-Qaida and the French will both leave Niger in peace.

Political science professor Mahaman Tidjani Alou says the arrival of both al-Qaida and French troops means Niger no longer has any privacy. It is as if the country is now simply part of a larger territory.

Alou says these are problems effecting Niger in such a way that its leaders appear helpless.   What will happen in the future, he asks. Either Sahelian countries will be strengthened to better control their territories and protect their sovereignty or they are going to occupied by foreign armies or other groups like al-Qaida.

With the resources Niger has today, Alou says the country is becoming more and more attractive to groups like Areva. Areva is already here, he says, but no one knows where it will stop. Alou says the problems of security are in Niger and Mali but the negotiations to find solutions are taking place in Paris and Washington. That, he says, is the paradox.

Algerian security analyst Hamad Yassine says French troops in the Sahel threaten Algeria's self-appointed role as the regional leader in the fight against al-Qaida.

Yassine says Algeria is organizing Sahelian military and intelligence chiefs to make clear that it is in charge of this fight. Yassine says it is a message to the Sarkozy government that French troops must leave regional security cooperation to Algeria, since Algeria believes it knows best this al-Qaida group because it began in Algeria.

Mauritanian political analyst Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Abu al-Maaly says French intervention in the hostage crisis would give al-Qaida a huge propaganda win.

He says French troops are like adding oil to a fire because it justifies al-Qaida's presence in the region as a popular force defending the sovereignty of Sahelian people against foreign intervention. He doubts Algeria's ability to better coordinate anti-terrorism efforts because of mistrust among Sahelian governments, which makes it easier for al-Qaida to operate.

Al-Qaida's attack on the uranium mine here was an unusually bold move for a group that previously focused on kidnapping tourists and aid workers. The vulnerability of such an important investment for Niger has lead to finger pointing over security and sovereignty.

Government spokesman Laouali Dan Dah says Niger's military offered to take over security at the Areva mine in July. But Areva chose instead to use its own unarmed guards unlike, Dan Dah says, any of the other mining firms in Niger. Areva says 350 troops stationed at the local airport were meant to regularly patrol living areas from where the hostages were abducted.