By Christian Lowe and Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, Sept 16 (Reuters) - The seizure of seven foreigners, including five French nationals, in Niger's northern uranium mining zone has raised suspicions that al Qaeda's north African wing is involved. [nLDE68F0V7]
There has so far been no clear indication of who is in fact responsible, but the group has captured dozens of foreigners in the region and killed a French hostage in July.
* Previous kidnappings of foreigners in the region have shown that in many cases it is not al Qaeda operatives themselves involved but local tribes-people, who are either operating with the insurgents or who act on their own initiative and then sell on the hostages to AQIM. "No matter who perpetrated this, there is a high likelihood they'll end up with AQIM," said Anna Murison of Exclusive Analysis, a corporate intelligence firm.
* If al Qaeda's north African wing or its associates are indeed responsible, the kidnapping will mark a major ramping up in the group's ambitions and capabilities. The militants, who operate under the name al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have not previously staged any operations in the part of Niger where the five French nationals were abducted. And they have never previously gone after such a hard target. In the past they have usually picked off groups of tourists or small parties of foreigners travelling in the desert with little or no security. Local sources told Reuters the French citizens were kidnapped from inside the town of Arlit, near an uranium mine operated by Areva, where it is likely they would have been protected by at least some security measures.
* The kidnapping, if it is proved to be the work of al Qaeda or its associates, is a sign of a growing escalation between the group and France. AQIM executed 78-year-old French hostage Michel Germaneau in July after French commandos took part in a failed raid to free him, alongside local forces. Following the French raid AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droudkel released an audio recording saying that by approving the operation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had "opened the gates of hell on himself, his people and his nation". French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said after Germaneau's killing that his country was at war with al Qaeda. France was the scene of some violent attacks in the 1990s carried out by groups fighting an insurgency against Algeria's government, but the country has not been specifically targeted by al Qaeda -- in part because it did not participate in the U.S.-led military action in Iraq. The confrontation with AQIM in the Sahara desert increases the risk that France will be targeted, although security experts say AQIM has very limited capability to launch strikes inside Europe.
* The outcome for the hostages depends to a large degree on which element, if any, of AQIM's operations in the Sahara desert is overseeing their abduction. If they end up in the hands of field commander Abou Zeid, their risks of survival are smaller. He is widely believed to have ordered the killings of Germaneau, and of British hostage Edwin Dyer last year. People who know Abou Zeid say he is rigid and fanatical. By contrast, if the hostages find themselves in the hands of another field commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, their chances are better. Security experts say he is less dogmatic, a dealmaker who in the past has negotiating the release of foreign hostages in exchange for cash or the freedom of jailed militants.
* The abduction of its employees has worrying implications for Areva, a maker and operator of nuclear reactors. The French state-owned firm has been operating Niger's two existing uranium mines, Cominak and Somair, since the 1970s. It is also developing the Imouraren uranium mine in the north of Niger, which is expected to become the biggest uranium mine in Africa. Areva's operations in Niger supply uranium to fuel nuclear power plants in France. Security problems in the wake of the kidnapping could affect production from the mines.
* The kidnapping creates a dilemma for the French government on how to respond. A military response may not be effective -- as shown by last month's killing of the French hostage after a commando raid. But equally, negotiating with the kidnappers could have serious consequences. Security officials in Algeria -- where AQIM's leadership comes from -- say that ransom payments in exchange for the release of Western hostages have raised millions of dollars for the insurgents. They say that money has made the region even more insecure because AQIM has used it to buy weapons and bribe corrupt officials to help the militants evade capture. An Algerian official has estimated that the going rate for a foreign hostage is 5 million euros. Western governments have never acknowledged paying ransoms, but if similar sums are paid for the five French hostages, that would amount to a major cash injection for the insurgents. (Additional reporting by William Maclean in London and David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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