NIAMEY, Niger — Suicide bombers in Niger detonated two car bombs simultaneously Thursday, one inside a military camp in the city of Agadez and another in the remote town of Arlit at a French-operated uranium mine, killing a total of 26 people and injuring 30, officials in Niger and France said.
A surviving attacker took a group of soldiers hostage, and authorities were attempting to negotiate their release.
The timing of the attacks, which occurred at the same moment more than 100 miles apart, and the fact that the bombers were able to penetrate both a well-guarded military installation and a sensitive foreign-operated uranium mine, highlight the growing reach and sophistication of the Islamic extremists based in neighboring Mali. Both attacks were claimed by a spinoff of Al Qaeda, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa,which earlier vowed to avenge the four-month-old French-led military intervention that ousted the group from Mali.
The most deaths were in the desert city of Agadez, located almost 600 miles northeast of the capital, where the attackers punched their explosive-laden car past the defenses at a military garrison and detonated inside the base, killing 20 soldiers and injuring 16, Niger’s minister of defense, Mahamadou Karidjo, said at a hastily assembled news conference in Niamey on Thursday. Three suicide bombers also died, but a fourth escaped and grabbed a group of military cadets, Interior Minister Abdou Labo said.
Draped in an explosive belt, the attacker was threatening to blow himself up along with his hostages, said Labo, who could not confirm how many cadets were being held. Almost 12 hours later, the military was still negotiating with the suicide bomber for their release.
At the same time the Agadez attack occurred, more than 150 miles to the northeast, a second group of suicide bombers slipped past a truck entering a uranium mine operated by French nuclear giant Areva. The car exploded once inside the campus, injuring 14 employees of the French company, one of whom died later, according to a statement by the French corporation. Two suicide bombers were also killed, the ministry of defense said.
In January, when France scrambled war planes over Mali and sent in thousands of ground troops to try to take back the country’s north from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad, the extremists vowed to hit back not just at French interests, but also at the African governments that helped them. The bomb blasts on Thursday are the most damaging attacks by the Mali-based jihadists to date, succeeding in hitting both an important French asset and the military of Niger, which had sent 650 troops to Mali to help France combat the Islamists.
Hitting Arlit is especially symbolic. Niger produces up to 40 percent of France’s uranium imports, a considerable amount as the European country derives 80 percent of its energy from nuclear power, according to an analysis by global intelligence unit, Stratfor.
Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Africa and groups allied with it seized the northern half of Mali in April of last year. They pushed into the major towns, setting up their own administration and alarming western nations, who saw it as precursor to a new Afghanistan.