PARIS (AP) — Armed assailants, operating under cover of night, kidnapped five French nationals and two Africans working in Niger for the French nuclear reactor builder Areva, French authorities said Thursday.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the seven were kidnapped overnight near the mining town of Arlit, in Niger's northern desert region. French authorities are "totally mobilized" to respond to the situation, Valero said in an online briefing.
The seven — who included a person from Togo and another from Madagascar — were seized by armed men while they were sleeping, a diplomatic official said on condition of anonymity. He was not allowed to speak to the press on the matter.
The Niger government spokesman said about 30 armed men captured the seven and took the hostages away in two Toyotas. The captors drove northwest in the direction of Mali and Algeria, said Mahamane Laouali Dan Dah.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the kidnappings. French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said Thursday that France currently faces an "elevated level" as a target of terrorists.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was holding a defense council meeting with key French officials about the kidnappings Thursday evening.
Earlier, he said he had asked Niger authorities to try to identify the captors and help free the hostages.
"France will do everything to liberate them as we do each time," Sarkozy told a news conference in Brussels after a European summit. He said the hostages were captured in two different places in the town.
"The Sahel zone is extremely dangerous. ... The situation we are now experiencing shows that we must redouble vigilance," the French president said.
In a joint statement, Areva and Vinci, the parent company of a subcontractor called Satom, said one Areva employee and his wife were among those abducted. The others were Satom staffers, the statement said.
The companies "immediately stepped up their security measures for their employees in the area," the statement said.
Areva spokeswoman Pauline Briand said the company had not yet received any claim of responsibility.
A Vinci spokeswoman said the five Satom employees had been working on an earth-moving project under Areva's supervision.
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, a desperately poor country. Areva, the world's largest nuclear manufacturer, gets much of its uranium from Niger.
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 abduction in Niger in April.
The leader of al-Qaida's North African, or AQMI, branch said the Frenchman was killed in retaliation for the deaths of six al-Qaida members in a military operation in the Sahara.
Africa expert and journalist Antoine Glaser said it was very difficult to speculate about who was behind the abductions but said the hostages' fate would likely hinge on the identity of their kidnappers.
"If it's AQMI, it's extremely worrisome, extremely serious. ... It's a challenge aimed directly at the French government," Glaser told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. If on the other hand it's an anti-mining group, "the situation can be resolved much more easily."
Areva is a strategic company for France, which relies heavily on nuclear power and depends largely on uranium mined in Niger to fuel its power plants, the Paris-based expert said.
"Niger is an essential country for Areva" and by extension for France, Glaser said, and the kidnapping puts both in "a very delicate situation."
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb grew out of an Islamist insurgency movement in Algeria, formally merging with al-Qaida in 2006 and spreading through the Sahel region.
The borders between the Sahel nations are porous, and militants 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.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Paris and Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Niger contributed to this report.