NIAMEY, Niger – NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — The French military flew reconnaissance jets over the Sahara on Monday in search of seven foreign workers who authorities fear were kidnapped by al-Qaida-linked militants near a French-operated uranium mine.
The hostages — including five French citizens — were last seen heading toward the neighboring countries of Mali and Algeria with about 30 captors before being seemingly swallowed by the vast desert.
"Their mission is to help Niger's military find the seven kidnapped people," Niger government spokesman Mahamane Laouali Dan Dah said of the French forces.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal told reporters in Paris it is highly probable that al-Qaida's North Africa branch, known as AQIM, is behind the kidnappings Thursday in Niger, a former French colony.
The searchers are using long-range French navy planes equipped with infrared detectors, a military official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press. About 80 French soldiers also were operating out of a hotel in Niger's capital on Monday.
Still, Niger is nearly twice the size of Texas and the remote region's porous borders would easily allow the captors to enter another country with the hostages.
A defense official in Mali said the neighboring country would allow overflights by the searchers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he also was not authorized to talk to media.
Algerian army border outposts are on maximum alert and reinforcements are being sent, the Algerian daily Le Jeune Independant reported.
More than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from the kidnap site, Mauritanian aircraft strafed a vehicle in Mauritania on Sunday, killing two women, a source close to the Malian Interior Minister said. An unspecified number of people were wounded in what was described as an accidental shooting unrelated to the kidnapping.
Security "breakdowns" existed before the abductions, a spokesman for French nuclear manufacturer Areva acknowledged. A man who worked for Areva and his wife were among those kidnapped near the mining town of Arlit in northern Niger. The other five work for a subcontractor called Satom.
Areva used private unarmed security agents and had rejected an offer by Niger to provide security, said Dan Dah, the Niger government spokesman. Areva spokesman Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier said security arrangements were based on an agreement with the Niger government.
"Niger is a sovereign country, and neither in this country nor in any others around the world are our guards armed," Saulnier told France-Info radio.
Areva has about 50 expatriates among its 2,500 workers in Niger, company spokeswoman Fleur Floquet said. About 350 Niger troops are at Areva's site in Arlit and the company has about 150 private guards, she said, adding that all the expatriates are expected to leave Arlit by Monday.
"For the moment, our priority is to find the hostages and ensure the security of our staff," she said. "Industrial operations are continuing."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said France will do whatever it can to free the hostages. One is from Togo and one from Madagascar.
Al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa operates in the vast desert region from Mauritania to Chad. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb grew out of an Algerian insurgency movement that officially joined with the terrorist network in 2006.
In July, AQIM said it executed a 78-year-old French aid worker it had taken hostage three months before, saying the killing was in retaliation for the deaths of six al-Qaida members in a French-backed military operation against the group.
Areva, a leading global nuclear manufacturer, gets much of its uranium from Niger. Aid groups say almost half of Niger's population desperately needs food and up to one in six children suffers from acute malnutrition.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten and Jenny Barchfield in Paris; Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali; and Aomar Ouali in Algiers, Algeria, contributed to this report.