France's Areva nuclear company evacuates workers from northern Sahara after Niger kidnappings

PARIS (AP) — France's state-owned nuclear company Areva has almost finished evacuating employees from Niger's northern Sahara desert region following the kidnapping of seven people there.

About 15 people who work for Areva or its subcontractors are still in northern Niger but are expected to depart Monday for Niamey, the capital, Areva spokeswoman Patricia Marie said Sunday. Employees have the option of returning to France.

French authorities believe al-Qaida's North Africa branch could be behind the kidnappings Thursday. There has been no claim of responsibility.

Armed assailants kidnapped seven people near the uranium mining town of Arlit, in northern Niger. Five are French, one is from Togo and one is from Madagascar.

Those abducted include a man who worked for Areva and his wife, as well as five employees of a subcontractor called Satom.

French news reports citing unnamed sources have said the hostages have been taken across the border to Mali, but France's Foreign Ministry said it had no information on their whereabouts.

Meanwhile, the Mauritanian army launched an offensive Friday against the North African branch of al-Qaida in neighboring Mali in which at least 12 militants and five Mauritanians were killed.

Officials in France and Mauritania say the operation had no link to the Niger abductions, and French government spokesman Luc Chatel told Radio J that France had no troops in the operation.