MAC: Mines and Communities

Niger rebels free Chinese hostage in uranium firm

Published by MAC on 2007-07-11

Niger rebels free Chinese hostage in uranium firm

11th July 2007

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi, Reuters -

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Tuareg-led rebels in northern Niger on Tuesday released a Chinese uranium executive they kidnapped four days ago, while his company suspended its activities in the desert region.

The Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) said Zhang Guohua, an executive at China Nuclear International Uranium Corp. (Sino-U), was free and waiting to be collected by the Red Cross.
He was taken close to the desert oasis of Ingall on Friday, more than 1,000 km (600 miles) from the capital Niamey.

"There's no problem, he's free," MNJ leader Aghaly ag Alambo told Reuters by satellite phone from northern Niger. "He's been talking to his family. We're just waiting for the Red Cross."

Government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar confirmed Zhang had been liberated and said he could be back in Niamey by Wednesday.

The MNJ kidnapped Zhang because it believed his firm was helping to fund government arms purchases to suppress its uprising. It said at the time of the kidnapping its action was meant as a warning and that the hostage would not be harmed.

A military source said Sino-U had suspended uranium exploration work in the region following the kidnap and rebel calls for foreign mining companies to withdraw expatriate staff.

"At the company's request, all of its workers have been evacuated under military escort to Ingall from where they will be taken to the regional capital Agadez," the source said.

Niger's government has granted around 70 mining exploration permits for its desert north, home to the world's fourth biggest uranium mining industry, and 100 more are under consideration. Sino-U is one of dozens of foreign firms operating in the area.

Moral Support

The MNJ, made up largely of Tuareg and other nomadic tribes, has launched a series of attacks since February against military and mining interests in and around Agadez, scene of a full-scale rebellion in the early 1990s.

It says the central government is neglecting the region and wants local people to have greater control over its mineral resources, which also include iron ore, silver and platinum.

In its first public statement since the beginning of the MNJ campaign, Niger's army called on the population to remain calm and said it was committed to protecting the nation.

"We call on the people of Niger to lend moral support to the armed forces engaged on the ground in a conflict which threatens a hard-won peace and security," army spokesman Abdoulkarim Goukoye said in an address on national radio.

The MNJ accuses the government of using the proceeds from mining permits to buy two Russian-made Mi-24 attack helicopters to strike its positions and says the army has Chinese weapons which it is using in a brutal crackdown on civilians.

"The weapons that we seized in the recent attacks (on military outposts) showed that most of the arms the government forces are using are Chinese-made," ag Alambo said.
Defence Ministry officials have declined to comment.

Pressure has been building on the president to hold talks with the leaders of the uprising. But the government refuses to recognise the MNJ and has dismissed its attacks, in which at least 33 soldiers have been killed, as acts of common banditry.

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