NIAMEY - Tuareg-led rebels in northern Niger on Tuesday released a Chinese
uranium executive they kidnapped four days ago, while his company suspended its
activities in the desert region.
The Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) said Zhang Guohua, an executive at China
Nuclear International Uranium Corp. (Sino-U), was free and waiting to be
collected by the Red Cross.
He was taken close to the desert oasis of Ingall on Friday, more than 1,000
km (600 miles) from the capital Niamey.
"There's no problem, he's free," MNJ leader Aghaly ag Alambo told Reuters by
satellite phone from northern Niger. "He's been talking to his family. We're
just waiting for the Red Cross."
Government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar confirmed Zhang had been liberated and
said he could be back in Niamey by Wednesday.
The MNJ kidnapped Zhang because it believed his firm was helping to fund
government arms purchases to suppress its uprising. It said at the time of the
kidnapping its action was meant as a warning and that the hostage would not be
A military source said Sino-U had suspended uranium exploration work in the
region following the kidnap and rebel calls for foreign mining companies to
withdraw expatriate staff.
"At the company's request, all of its workers have been evacuated under
military escort to Ingall from where they will be taken to the regional capital
Agadez," the source said.
Niger's government has granted around 70 mining exploration permits for its
desert north, home to the world's fourth biggest uranium mining industry, and
100 more are under consideration. Sino-U is one of dozens of foreign firms
operating in the area.
The MNJ, made up largely of Tuareg and other nomadic tribes, has launched a
series of attacks since February against military and mining interests in and
around Agadez, scene of a full-scale rebellion in the early 1990s.
It says the central government is neglecting the region and wants local
people to have greater control over its mineral resources, which also include
iron ore, silver and platinum.
In its first public statement since the beginning of the MNJ campaign,
Niger's army called on the population to remain calm and said it was committed
to protecting the nation.
"We call on the people of Niger to lend moral support to the armed forces
engaged on the ground in a conflict which threatens a hard-won peace and
security," army spokesman Abdoulkarim Goukoye said in an address on national
The MNJ accuses the government of using the proceeds from mining permits to
buy two Russian-made Mi-24 attack helicopters to strike its positions and says
the army has Chinese weapons which it is using in a brutal crackdown on
"The weapons that we seized in the recent attacks (on military outposts)
showed that most of the arms the government forces are using are Chinese-made,"
ag Alambo said.
Defence Ministry officials have declined to comment.
Pressure has been building on the president to hold talks with the leaders of
the uprising. But the government refuses to recognise the MNJ and has dismissed
its attacks, in which at least 33 soldiers have been killed, as acts of common