By Abdoulaye Massalatchi
NIAMEY (Reuters) - French special forces and Niger troops shot dead on Friday the last two Islamists involved in a twin attack on a military base and a French uranium mine in Niger, which was claimed by the mastermind of January's mass hostage-taking in Algeria.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed veteran of al Qaeda's north African operations, said in a statement that his Mulathameen brigade organized Thursday's raids with the MUJWA militant group in retaliation for Niger's role in a French-led war on Islamists in Mali.
The coordinated dawn attacks killed 21 people and damaged machinery at Areva's Somair mine in the remote town of Arlit, a key part of France's energy supplies. They raised fears of Mali's conflict spreading to neighboring West African states.
Niger Defence Minister Mahamadou Karidjo said French special forces had helped to end the siege by two Islamists fighters who were holed up inside the army barracks in the desert town of Agadez early on Friday.
"Everything is over in Agadez. Everything is calm," Karidjo told RFI radio. He said eight Islamists in total had been killed in Agadez and two more in Arlit, adding: "All of them were wearing belts packed with explosives."
The minister said two military cadets had been killed by the cornered Islamists. However, a military source, who asked not to be named, said the cadets were shot dead in Friday's raid.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television that special forces had intervened at the request of Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou. France stationed special forces in northern Niger to help protect its desert uranium mines, providing one-fifth of the fuel for France's reactors.
Niger has emerged as a firm ally of France and the United States in the fight against al Qaeda-linked groups in the Sahel. It has deployed 650 troops in neighboring Mali and sought to shut its porous desert borders to Islamist groups, believed to have shifted their bases to southern Libya.
Belmokhtar, signing his statement with his pseudonym Khalid Abu al-Abbas, said the raid was a response to Issoufou's public claims that the Islamists had been defeated in Mali.
"We will have more operations by the strength and power of Allah and not only that, but we will move the battle to inside his country if he doesn't withdraw his mercenary army," the communique, whose authenticity could not be verified, said.
SHOCKWAVE FROM MALI
Belmokhtar's brigade claimed responsibility for January's attack on the In Amenas gas plant in southeastern Algeria in which 37 foreigners were killed, saying it was retaliation for the French-led campaign in Mali.
MUJWA and al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM have also pledged to strike at French interests across the region after Paris launched the ground and air campaign in January that broke their 10-month grip over Mali's vast desert north.
Recent MUJWA suicide attacks around the northern city of Gao - where the group imposed harsh sharia law during a 10-month rule - have caused relatively little damage. Analysts said the strong impact of Thursday's attack appeared to reflect Belmokhtar's bold strategic thinking.
Belmokhtar has links with MUJWA, having spent time in GAO when it was controlled by the Islamist group last year.
"This attack is part of the shockwave from the war in Mali," said Yvan Guichaoua, an expert on Niger at University of East Anglia. "I am not surprised at all that it took place in Niger ... Militarily effective groups are fleeing Mali."
The MUJWA, which split off from AQIM in 2011, is a largely black African jihadi group with recruits from several West African countries which has claimed previous attacks outside Mali, including the kidnapping of aid workers in Algeria.
Chad's army claimed Belmokhtar was killed in northern Mali this year but Western intelligence services had played down reports of the veteran jihadist's death.
Mauritania's Alakhbar news website, which has contacts with Islamist groups, cited what it said was a spokesman for Belmokhtar's brigade saying the Niger raid was carried out by a mix of Islamist fighters from Sudan, Western Sahara and Mali.
(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott, Daniel Flynn in Dakar, Marinne Pennetier and Brian Love in Paris; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Michael Roddy)
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