Tuareg-led rebels in northern Niger have kidnapped a Chinese uranium executive whose company they accuse of helping to fund government arms purchases, the rebels' leader said on Saturday.
Zhang Guohua (張國華), an executive at China Nuclear International Uranium Corp (Sino-U), was kidnapped on Friday close to the oasis town of Ingall, more than 1,000km north of the capital Niamey, a source close to the mines ministry said.
Aghaly ag Alambo, leader of the rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) which carried out the kidnapping, said Zhang had been taken because the group believed his company was helping to fund arms purchases by the government.
"We're not against any firm, be it from China or elsewhere," Ag Alambo said by satellite phone from northern Niger. "But we are against companies which supply the national army while that army is directing its force against civilians who are demanding their rights."
Officials from Sino-U could not immediately be reached.
Ag Alambo said the kidnapping was meant as a warning and the rebels did not intend to harm Zhang.
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 Niger's mineral-rich north, home to the world's fourth biggest uranium mining industry.
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, platinum and titanium. Foreign oil firms are also prospecting for crude.
It accuses government forces of randomly detaining and killing civilians in a heavy-handed security crackdown.
"This region has been declared a war zone by the government and in this situation we cannot allow the Chinese to continue extracting natural resources while civilians are being killed," said Seydou Kaocen Maiga, a Paris-based MNJ spokesman.
"We sent people to tell them that we did not want the Chinese to continue working while there is a conflict ... but they refused to stop so this employee was taken," he said.
Niger's government, which refuses to recognize the MNJ and has dismissed the attacks as acts of common banditry, said it was taking all necessary measures to quickly free the hostage.
"The government deplores and strongly condemns this villainous act which concerns all of us and which shows no respect for this country's legendary values of hospitality," government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar told national TV.
China's foreign ministry said it had instructed its embassy to take action to rescue the hostage.
"The Chinese Embassy has been asked to make representations with the Niger side for the release of the kidnapped Chinese citizen and to ensure the safety of staff at Chinese-funded companies and organizations in Niger," a foreign ministry spokeswoman said.
The MNJ says the government has used the proceeds from mining permits to buy two Russian-made Mi-24 attack helicopters to strike its positions and the army is using Chinese-made arms.
Maiga said Ingall, an oasis of date trees famed for its salty plains, was a particularly inappropriate place for the Chinese to be working because of its cultural importance to Tuareg and Peul nomadic herders.
It is the site of a massive gathering known as the "Cure Salee" (salt cure) each September, in which nomads who have been on the move for months reunite and exchange news while their goats, sheep, cows and camels eat the area's mineral-rich grass.