Twenty soldiers have been killed and another 16 injured after a suicide bomber detonated a car loaded with explosives inside a military garrison in the city of Agadez in Niger.
Niger's interior minister says that a suicide attacker has taken several cadets hostage in the garrison. Abdou Labo said the attacker is draped in an explosive belt and is threatening to blow himself up. He said authorities are negotiating with him.
Niger's defence minister Mahamadou Karidjo told reporters that a simultaneous explosion more than 100 miles away in the town of Arlit inside a uranium mine operated by French nuclear giant Areva injured 13. Five suicide bombers died in the twin explosions, he added. The government of Niger has decreed a 72-hour national period of mourning.
The attacks are believed to have been carried out by Islamic extremists based in neighbouring Mali. If so, this would be the single-most damaging operation they have carried out since January when France launched a military intervention to oust them.
Paris-based Areva confirmed in a statement that 13 employees were hurt in the attack in Arlit, in the northern part of Niger where in 2010, al Qaida's branch in Africa kidnapped five French citizens working for the mining company. Residents in the two towns said that both attacks occurred at around 5:30 am, indicating a level of co-ordination among the attackers.
Alhousseiny Moussa, a resident of Agadez, was already awake and just steps away from his local mosque for the first prayer of the day, when he heard the boom coming from the city's military camp. "I heard the explosion and immediately after I heard a volley of gunfire. The area where it happened was inside the military camp and it's now been roped off so we cannot go in, " he said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack, but because Niger shares a border with the troubled nation of Mali, whose north was occupied for most of last year by fighters loyal to al Qaida, residents and government officials assume the attackers are Islamic extremists.
The Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, has led repeated suicide attacks inside Mali. The militants vowed to hit any country that helped France, which launched a military offensive in Mali in January to flush out the jihadists.
Niger sent 650 troops to try to stabilise Mali. If the attack was carried out by one of the Mali-based groups, it would be the single largest attack that they have carried out both in terms of casualties and due to the simultaneous nature of the explosions. In recent weeks they attempted to carry out a similar style of assault, with kamikaze fighters detonating themselves in the Malian towns of Gossi and Menaka, but the attackers killed only themselves.
Al Qaida's affiliate in Africa and groups allied with them succeeded in seizing a France-sized territory in northern Mali in 2012. They set up their own administration in all the major towns in the north. For nearly a decade before that, they used remote bases in Mali to train fighters and to hold the European hostages they plucked - many of them from Niger.