France sends soldiers to Niger to hunt for hostages
France has sent dozens of soldiers to Niger's capital Niamey to hunt for seven hostages kidnapped by suspected Islamist militants, officials said.
The troops are using reconnaissance planes to search the Sahara Desert for the captives who were seized last week from their homes at Arlit.
The French government believes they were probably abducted by gunmen from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Five of the hostages are French. The other two are from Madagascar and Togo.
The hostages are employees of French construction company Vinci and nuclear energy firm Areva, which operates a uranium mine near Arlit.
The captors and their hostages were last seen heading north-west toward Mali and Algeria.
France has dispatched 80 military personnel to Niamey to begin scouring the desert from the air, French government sources told AFP news agency.
The soldiers are using a long-range Breguet Atlantique aircraft and a Mirage jet, equipped with sophisticated monitoring equipment, AFP reports.
"Their mission is to help Niger's military find the seven kidnapped people," said Niger government spokesman Mahamane Laouali Dan Dah.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. But French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner has said he suspects AQIM was responsible.
Al-Qaeda's North African wing emerged in early 2007, after an Algerian militant group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), aligned itself with Osama Bin Laden's international terror network.
It has waged a campaign of suicide bomb attacks and ambushes in Algeria, and in recent years has become more active in the Sahara, where governments struggle to impose their authority and gangs of smugglers, bandits and rebels operate alongside the militants.