Paris: France was confronted on Wednesday by a
second attack by hostage-takers on its West African energy
interests in less than a week, and now faces a tough task
resolving two unrelated hostage dramas.
Pirates stormed a French-flagged oil industry supply
vessel operating off Nigeria and seized three French seamen,
just six days after Al-Qaeda militants captured five French
nationals in neighbouring Niger`s uranium fields.
In neither case have any demands yet been made, but
France can expect to face a dilemma as to whether to pay
ransoms or face down these increasingly brazen threats to its
economic interests in a restive region.
"What`s new is that these aren`t ordinary hostages, like
the aid worker Michel Germaneau, a saintly man who had no
exchange value," said Dominique Moisi of the French Institute
of International Relations.
Germaneau, a frail 78-year-old engineer who was building
a school in Niger, was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic
Maghreb (AQIM) in April and reported dead in July days after a
failed French military rescue bid.
The new hostages include an expatriate engineer from the
mainly state-owned French nuclear giant Areva, his wife and
three employees of Areva subcontractor Satom, working in the
firm`s uranium mines around the town of Arlit.
Areva`s three mining sites in Niger provide uranium that
fuels a third of French electricity production, and since the
attack all expatriate staff have been withdrawn from the area.
"The hostages are employees of the richest and most
strategic firms in France. The kidnappers knew this. They know
more about us than we know about them," Moisi warned.
In the second attack -- which was completely unrelated
and carried out by a group with no Al-Qaeda ties -- pirates
boarded a 2,000-tonne tugboat operated by Marseille-based
shipping services company Bourbon.
Bourbon was operating the vessel under contract to the
Swiss-based oil firm Addax, a subsidiary of the Chinese energy
and chemical giant Sinopec and a big player in the oil fields
of the Gulf of Guinea.
An official in Paris said that the motive appeared to be
purely financial and that the French nationals had been
singled out -- the pirates leaving the other 13 crew members
safely on board.