Suicide bombers in Niger detonated two car bombs simultaneously on Thursday, one inside a military camp in the city of Agadez and another in the remote town of Arlit inside a French-operated uranium mine, killing a total of 25 people and injuring 29, according to the ministry of defense.
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 the Islamic extremist group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, said French radio RFI.
The group is a spinoff of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which along with MUJAO controlled a France-sized chunk of northern Mali for nearly 10 months last year. They were flushed out of the major towns in northern Mali by a French-led military intervention which began in January.
Because the French carried out the bulk of the operations, MUJAO and al-Qaeda's chapter in Africa warned that they would hit French interests all over the world in revenge, as well as all African states that help them.
The bomb blasts on Thursday are the most damaging attacks by the jihadists in Niger to date and succeeded in hitting both an important French asset and the military of Niger, which sent 650 troops to help France combat the Islamists in Mali.
The highest toll was in the desert city of Agadez, located almost 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) northeast of the capital, where the attackers punched their explosive-laden car past the defenses at a military garrison and succeeded in entering the base, killing 20 soldiers and 16 others when they detonated themselves, said Niger's Minister of Defense Mahamadou Karidjo at a hastily assembled press conference in the capital, Niamey, on Thursday. Three suicide bombers also died. The defense minister said the government decreed a 72-hour national period of mourning.
He said that another two suicide bombers died in Arlit. No one else was killed, although Paris-based nuclear giant Areva said in a statement 13 employees of its mine were injured in the attack.
Residents in the two towns immediately remarked on how closely coordinated the attacks appear to have been, taking place just moments apart at 5:30 a.m., a time when many in this majority Muslim nation are prostrating themselves in the first prayer of the day.
Alhousseiny Moussa, a resident of Agadez, was walking to the mosque to pray when he heard the boom coming from the city's military camp. "I heard the explosion and immediately after, I heard a volley of gunfire. The area where it happened was inside the military camp and it's now been roped off so we cannot go in. It was right at 5:30 a.m.," he said.
Another resident of Agadez, a city situated on the sandy fringe of the Sahara desert, said the car bomb awoke anyone who was still sleeping. "We heard a strong detonation that woke the whole neighborhood, it was so powerful," explained Abdoulaye Harouna. "The whole town is now surrounded by soldiers looking for the attackers."
Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Africa and groups allied with them seized the northern half of Mali in April of last year. They pushed into the major towns, setting up their own administration. But for nearly a decade before that, they had already made themselves at home in Mali, using its remote, and lawless northern desert to train fighters and to hold the European hostages they kidnapped — including many from Niger. In 2008, they grabbed two Canadians on the outskirts of Niger's capital, including United Nations special envoy Robert Fowler, who was held for 130 days before a ransom was negotiated. Two years later, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb infiltrated the mining town of Arlit, which was the scene of Thursday's car bombing, grabbing seven employees of French company Areva, and one of its contractors, SATOM, as well as the wife of one of the workers.
Four of them — all French nationals — are still being held by the terror cell and their whereabouts are unknown. The terror group has repeatedly threatened to execute them in retaliation for the French-led intervention in Mali.
On Thursday at 5:30 a.m., an all-terrain Toyota sports-utility vehicle penetrated the SOMAIR mine, where Areva is extracting uranium in Arlit, located 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) to the north of the capital, Niamey, according to residents. The car exploded not far from the machinery used at the mine.
"We saw a car enter the factory and immediately it exploded," said Agoumou Idi, a worker inside the factory who was reached by telephone. "The terrorists, probably from MUJAO, took advantage of the fact that the entrance gate was open in order to let in a truck carrying the next shift of workers. They used that opening to enter the heart of our factory and explode their vehicle."
In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry condemned the attacks but said it was too early to give a definitive toll. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke with his counterpart in Niger and said France was ready to offer any assistance needed. It added that France fully supports Niger's "fight against terrorist groups."