French nuclear company Areva says 7 people, including 2 French staff, kidnapped Niger

PARIS (AP) — Seven people working with French nuclear reactor builder Areva were kidnapped overnight in northern Niger, a spokeswoman for the state-owned company said Thursday.

The seven were kidnapped overnight Wednesday to Thursday near the town of Arlit, Areva spokeswoman Pauline Briand said. Two of those abducted, a man and a woman, were Areva employees and French citizens and the five others worked for an Areva subcontractor, she said.

Briand declined to provide their nationalities or any further details. She said the company had not yet received any claim of responsibility for the kidnappings.

A French Foreign Ministry official said the ministry was trying to confirm the abductions. France's Defense Ministry had no comment.

Arlit — located in the Sahara region, about 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Niamey — was built to house workers in two large uranium mines nearby.

Uranium, a metal used to make nuclear fuel, is a lucrative export for Niger, and Areva, the world's largest nuclear manufacturer, gets much of its uranium from the desperately poor country.

Areva employees working in Niger have been abducted in the past. In 2008, the company announced the release of four of its employees — all French nationals — who had been kidnapped by a rebel group, the Movement for Justice, which opposes the mining of ancestral lands.

Al-Qaida's North African affiliate is also active in the region and has targeted French and other European nationals in previous kidnappings.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or North Africa, claimed responsibility for the July execution of an ailing 78-year-old French aid worker. Michel Germaneau was slain in Mali three months after his initial abduction in Niger in April.

The leader of al-Qaida's North African branch said the Frenchman was killed in retaliation for the deaths of six al-Qaida members in a military operation in the Sahara.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, also known by the initials AQMI, grew out of an Islamist insurgency movement in Algeria, formally merging with al-Qaida in 2006 and spreading through the Sahel region.

The land borders between the Sahel nations are porous, and militants are known to move between the countries. Increasing concerns about terrorism and trafficking in northwest Africa prompted four countries in the region — Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger — to open a joint military headquarters deep in the desert last April.