Niger rebels add to China’s Africa woes

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When rebels snatched a Chinese mining executive searching for uranium in the Sahara desert, they did more than cost his employers a few working days spent looking for him.

At a stroke the insurgents added Niger to a growing list of African states where China’s growing appetite for minerals has embroiled its companies in conflicts.

Last week’s abduction also exposed potential risks for Canadian, British, Indian and other prospectors joining a scramble for uranium in Niger, lured by prices soaring partly on Chinese plans to build more nuclear reactors.

China’s widening African footprint is not only forcing workers such as the missing Zhang Guohua to reconsider their plans. It is having a ripple effect on its competitors.

The Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) said it seized Mr Guohua to deter Beijing from arming Niger’s government, rather than as part of a plan to hit foreign companies.

But Seydou Kaocen Maiga, MNJ spokesman, warn­ed that any company drill-
ing for uranium in the rebels’ northern homeland risked being perceived as partisan.

“They are collaborating with the system we’re fighting,” he said by telephone from France, the former colonial power. “We advise them to leave the area.”

The MNJ’s revolt, the latest uprising by a nomadic group accusing the government in Niamey of neglect, is typical of the threat posed to Chinese workers elsewhere in Africa.

In the worst case to date, nine Chinese workers and 65 Ethiopians were killed in April when guerrillas attacked an oil installation near the Somali border.

The MNJ has also begun launching attacks against military and mining targets in which more than 30 soldiers have been killed.

A new group whose strength is hard to judge, the MNJ says China sought oil and uranium rights by giving President Mamadou Tandja’s government kickbacks and guns.

China did not comment on the rebels’ allegations, but has shown signs of wanting to soothe western concerns over its relationships with governments in places such as Zimbabwe and Sudan.

Facing mounting pressure from human rights groups who accuse China of ignoring the slaughter in the western region of Darfur to retain its dominant access to Sudan’s oil, Beijing named a special representative for Darfur in April.

While Niger has never approached the scale of Sudan’s conflicts, mining companies are keen for a speedy resolution of the latest rebellion.

Marek Kreczmer, chief executive officer of Canada’s Northwestern Mineral Ventures, which began drilling for uranium this year, said he was optimistic the latest incident would be resolved through peaceful negotiations.

The army called on the public this week for “moral support” to fight the rebels. Meanwhile, the MNJ says it will hand Mr Guohua back to his employers, the China Nuclear Engineering & Construction Corporation, soon.

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