China’s embassy in Niamey, Niger, has confirmed that a Chinese-owned uranium company executive kidnapped for ten days in northern Niger is free and safe. Executive Zhang Guohua was released by his Tuareg rebel captors and handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Sunday. He had been taken hostage by unidentified gunmen in the Agadez region, some one-thousand kilometers north of Niamey on July 6. The Chinese company has suspended its prospecting operations, due to recent threats from the rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), and attacks by ethnic Tuaregs in the region, which is one of the leading sources of uranium in the world. Broadcast journalist Katiella Gasso of Niamey’s Radio Anfani says the Tuareg interest in gaining greater control of the region’s rich resources is complemented by the general population’s overwhelming support for the Niger government and its military against the rebels.
“The situation is a little bit complicated because the Tuareg rebels made a confusing situation in the north of the country and the government is trying now to make sure that this problem can be solved by dialogues because all of the population is now behind the government to have a solution of this problem,” says Gasso.
Three government soldiers seized last month by the rebel MNJ have also just been released, according to rebel chief Agaly Alambo. The Red Cross, however, could not yet confirm their whereabouts on Monday. Zhang serves as deputy general manager of the Societe Des Mines D’Agelik. Journalist Gasso says the motive for his kidnapping involved reports that China had supplied weapons to the Niger military, which the rebels initially believed would be used against them.
“According to the rebels, they took some arms in an area which were made by China. And the guy they took was a Chinese claiming that it was China which is giving arms to Niger to fight against them. After some negotiations, they realized that it was not the Chinese who gave arms to Niger to fight them, and they decided to release him,” reported Gasso.
As for China’s D’Agelik Mines, the Nigerien journalist points out the company’s cautious approach toward resuming prospecting and mining operations.
“Now that the north of the country is not so safe, they decided to stop the exploration and afterward will go back and continue the work,” said Gasso. He said he expects that with government and military help, the mine should be getting back to resume operations in the next few days.
“China has a license for exploration in the north of Niger. And we know that there are some other countries which have a license for exploration in the north of the country. China is today one of the big countries which sells a lot of things, particularly to Africa because Chinese articles are not expensive,” he says.
Gasso also notes that other nations share concessions and mining rights to conduct operations in northern Niger. “We know that first, uranium was explored by French companies, but now, the government decides to give licenses to some other companies in the world. It’s a situation that makes unhappy the Tuareg in the north because in their area, they want that people in their societies can work with the companies,” he notes.
Gasso says that it’s hard to know if the kidnappings and the violence will continue. But he says that the rebel attacks have served to unite the vast majority of Niger’s population behind the government, its leaders, and the country’s army.