Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The plague is spreading

It was a strange experience. Last week, I was changing metro stations at the in Paris when suddenly 3 riot policemen ran by. A few seconds later, as I reached the platform, the same policemen asked the crowd to immediately leave the station. It was about 5:30 pm and the Opera station was crowded with people returning home after work. The police refused to give any explanation, the platform was just closed. Coming out in the open air, I decided to walk the last 2 km home, thinking that the exercise was good to eliminate some of the collaterals of French cuisine and beverages.
It is only a few days later that the French Home Minister announced that on that particular day, the French intelligence agencies had been expecting a terrorist attack in Paris. Since then, France has been blanketed under a Red Alert scheme code-named Plan Vigipirate which had been activated only a few times since its creation in 1991.
On the same day, terrorists struck a blow to France in the far-away African State of Niger. Five French nationals and two of their African colleagues were kidnapped. Two of the French worked for Areva, the French nuclear energy firm (which will soon operate two plants in Maharashtra) and the three others employed by Vinci, the French construction company. All were involved on the uranium mining site in North Niger in a place called Arlit. Areva gets most of its supply of uranium from the mines of Arlit and Imouraren in this country. Let us not forget that Niger is the world's sixth largest producer of uranium; radioactive heavy metal is its main export.
Already worried by the possibility of a terrorist attack in France, the French authorities immediately suspected the AQMI (Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb) previously known as the Safalist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French initials GSPC). This Islamist militia dreams to overthrow the Algerian government and institute an Islamic State. They are led by Abu Musab Abdel Wadud, the Bin Laden of the Maghreb who is accused of killing a British hostage last year and a 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in July.
The Spanish government is said to have recently paid millions of Euros to release two of its nationals captured by AQIM in Mauritania.
The AQIM has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. Department of State and the European Union.
Its main objective is clearly to attack Algerian, Spanish, French, and American assets and personnel in the region.
Though Areva had engaged some private security agencies to protect its sites, it appears that the guards were unarmed and forced to leave the job to the Nigerian Army. According to an agreement with the Government in Niamey, 350 armed troops were to defend the site.
Soon after the kidnapping, the blame game started with the French company accusing the Nigerian authorities (apparently some ‘insiders’ helped the terrorists to reach the spot and whisk the hostages away), while Idi Ango Omar, the Nigerian Home Minister declared that it was Areva’s responsibility to protect its own nationals. The Minister also criticised the French company for using former Tuareg rebels to look after its interests.
Rumors circulated that the hostages had been taken to the nearby Mali, forcing Paris to decide to evacuate its nationals from the Saharian State. While Luc Chatel, the spokesperson of the Government stated “France will do everything to free its hostage”, he refused to answer the question about Paris contemplating a ‘military operation’. He however affirmed that the kidnapping had no link with an operation by French Special Forces who tried to liberate Michel Germaneau two months ago in Mali; it ended with the death of the hostage (though his body has not been recovered so far).
It appears now that in early September, Captain Seydou Oumanou, the Prefect of Arlit, informed the CEO of the companies working in the area (Somaïr, Cominak, Areva, NC Niger and Goviex) of "the seriousness of the security situation”. He mentioned the spotting of 8 Toyotas transporting armed groups near the mining site. Oumanou said that the Nigerian Forces had managed to repel the terrorists who had planned to take away “military equipment and French personnel.” He concluded: “You will understand that in these circumstances the AQMI threat should been taken seriously”.
Though Areva now affirms that it immediately acted on this communication of the local authorities by sending a senior official to meet the military authorities in Niamey, nothing could be concretely organised before the fateful day.
Since then, the AQIM has officially claimed the abduction of five French nationals "We claim responsibility for this blessed operation and tell the French government that the mujahideens will inform it with their legitimate demands at a later time."
In a voice message heard on al-Jazeera channel, AQIM spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed added: “We also warn [the French government] against any sort of stupidity." He probably referred to a possible military operation.
He continued: "Following the promise of our emir, Abou Moussab, a group of heroic mujahedeen last Wednesday, under the command of Sheikh Abou Zeid, succeeded in penetrating the French mining site at Arlit in Niger."
A specialized blog run by the daily French paper Liberation (Secret Defence) informs its readers that the Special Operation Command has already sent a few hundred troops to Ouagadougou, Burkina-Faso’s capital. They will be positioned there to prepare an eventual military operation to free the hostages. Ouagadougou is perfectly located south of the desert of Mali and Niger. This force would have at its disposal 8 or 10 planes for ‘tactical transportation’ (Transall C-160 or Hercules C-130) as well as 2 helicopters.
Long-range Breguet Atlantique aircraft and a Mirage jet equipped with sophisticated monitoring equipment are also said to have been dispatched to Niger.
Soon after the AQIM announcement. the French Defence Council met at the Elysee Palace under the chairmanship of President Sarkozy. Nothing transpired from this high level meeting except that Brice Hortefeux, the French Home Minister left soon after for Niger.
The French intelligence agencies seem to have been able to track the terrorists and the hostages as they were heading towards Inabangaret, an important well in the desert later they would have later crossed into Mali.
All this may seem far-way from Delhi where the Great Games are soon going to be declared opened. It is however symptomatic of the spreading of the tentacles of terrorism in new continents.
Interestingly, the Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram will visit France in October to discuss terrorism and other matters of common interest.
It will be an important visit considering that both nations suffer from the same plague. Chidambaram’s visit will be followed by that of Jean-David Levitte, Diplomatic Advisor to the French President, to India. Sarkozy’s ‘sherpa’ (as he is known) will meet his counterpart Shivshankar Menon. Since a few years, both countries have decided to address the terrorist threat bilaterally and have formed for the purpose an India-France Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism whose objective is to strengthen ‘operational contacts’ in the face of common threats.
In France, the Red Alert is still on; nobody knows how long it will remain. In India, with the forthcoming Games, the security agencies are on tenterhooks.
Seen from abroad, it is sad that the Indian government is making a fool of itself. In fact, it is quite embarrassing when people get to know that you are coming from India; they immediately start asking questions about the Games; the first query being: “I did not know that the Commonwealth still existed” and then more upsetting questions such as the collapse of bridges, general filth, the price of the toilet paper, etc.
It is certainly not good for India’s reputation. In the meantime, terrorism continues to spread.

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