DAKAR — Niger's government said at least 20 soldiers and five suicide bombers were killed Thursday in attacks on a military base in the north-central town of Agadez and a French-owned uranium mine further north in Arlit.
Sources confirmed to VOA that one attacker in Agadez remains on the loose and is holding a few young officers hostage at the base. French media say the Islamist militant group MUJAO has claimed responsibility for the double attack as retribution for Niger's role in the French-led military intervention against them in northern Mali.
Witnesses said the twin attacks took place around 5:30 am local time Thursday.
In Agadez, a car exploded at the military barracks. Government spokesman Morou Amadou said multiple insurgents were involved.
He said some of the attackers were wearing explosive belts. He said they arrived in a vehicle that was rigged with explosives and then at some point got out and attacked, killing soldiers.
Agadez residents said they heard security forces clashing with insurgents at the barracks.
This resident, Hassane said he heard a large explosion around 5:30 a.m. followed by gunshots and heavy weapons fire. He said the town was calm by mid-morning, but military and police are stationed throughout the streets and have blocked off access to the military base.
A suicide car bomb also struck the French-owned Somair uranium mine further north in Arlit.
The Paris-based Areva nuclear energy firm said in a statement that the attack killed one person injured 14 and that Nigerien security forces are reinforcing security at their sites.
Niger has contributed troops to a West African regional force fighting Islamist militants in northern Mali.
The French-led military intervention began in January and has reclaimed much of the territory after the ten-month occupation by extremists. However, Islamist fighters have re-emerged to carry out guerilla attacks against Malian troops and regional targets.
A suicide car bomb targeted the barracks of Nigerien troops stationed in the northern Malian town of Menaka on May 10. The bomber was the only casualty.
Thursday's attack was the first inside Niger and so far the deadliest retribution for the Mali intervention since al-Qaida-linked fighters raided a BP natural gas plant in southern Algeria in late January, killing 38 hostages.
Niger's government has declared three days of national mourning.