MAC: Mines and Communities

Nigerien rebels: Chinese hostage to be freed imminently

Published by MAC on 2007-07-11

Nigerien rebels: Chinese hostage to be freed imminently

International Herald Tribune -

11th July 2007

NIAMEY, Niger (The Associated Press) - Rebels in Niger's northern desert said Wednesday that they have agreed to release a Chinese uranium worker taken hostage last week, and are only waiting for Red Cross workers to take him in.

Reached by satellite phone, rebel leader Aghali Alambo told The Associated Press that he had been in regular phone contact with Chinese officials since Zhang Guohua was captured on Friday.

Alambo said they agreed yesterday to release Zhang, an executive at a Chinese uranium company, but have been waiting for an independent international organization to arrive to take him. He said the rebels are making arrangements with the Red Cross.

"He's doing well. He has his car. He has his telephone. He's constantly talking to his family," Alambo said, speaking from the group's base at Iferouane, about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) northeast of the capital of Niamey.

The six-month-old rebel group, the Niger Movement for Justice, has become increasingly active in Niger's northern desert in recent months. It is made up of members of the ethnic Tuareg minority who say the government has abandoned its northern citizens and has not honored promises made in a 1995 deal that ended years of clashes.

Last month, the group attacked an army base; an assault in which 13 government soldiers were killed. Nearly 80 soldiers were taken hostage, though about 30 who had been injured in the fighting were later released. Alambo said they continue to hold 42 soldiers, and were treating them well.

The Nigerien government has repeatedly referred to the group as a collection of bandits and drug traffickers who want to destabilize the country.

Late Tuesday, the Nigerien army condemned the rebels in a broadcast on state television, and said it will take whatever measures necessary to quell the violence in the region.

"We will accomplish our mission calmly and with cohesion, within the law," army spokesman Lt. Col. Abdoul Karim Goukoye said in the broadcast.

He also demanded that the rebels guarantee that those prisoners still being held are treated in accordance with international law.

Goukoye called on the Nigerien population to support the country's forces, which he said were "engaged in a conflict that could put in peril our peace and national unity."

Alambo said rebels of the MNJ, the French abbreviation for the group, kidnapped Zhang because they believe that Chinese firms operating in Niger are helping the government acquire weapons that it is then turning on the Tuaregs.

"We are seeing weapons that Niger's army has not seen in 10 years — anti-aircraft guns, mines. We know the quality of arms that Niger has had," he said. Alambo said the MNJ could tell the arms were coming from China by their make, but said he did not know the exact brands or models himself.

He said they did not ask for ransom for the hostage release, and that none has been paid. In neighboring Nigeria, criminal gangs regularly kidnap oil workers in pursuit of large cash ransoms.

China's official Xinhua News Agency had reported over the weekend that Zhang had been taken because Tuaregs in the region were upset at the company's policy of employing people from the capital rather than locals.

Neither Nigerien nor Chinese officials could be reached for comment.

China's drive for raw materials, especially oil, has been taking it to increasingly unstable locations — many in Africa.

The kidnapping in Niger is one of a string of attacks against Chinese this year on the continent. In April, nine Chinese workers and 65 Ethiopians were killed in an attack in Ethiopia. In Nigeria, 16 Chinese nationals have been kidnapped in separate incidents.

Associated Press Writer Heidi Vogt contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.

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