PARIS (Reuters) - France has ordered special forces to protect uranium sites run by state-owned Areva in Niger as the threat of attacks on its interests rises after its intervention against rebels in Mali, a military source said on Thursday.
Areva has been mining uranium in Niger for more than five decades and provides much of the raw materials that power France's nuclear power industry, the source of 75 percent of the country's electricity.
Paris launched air strikes and sent hundreds of soldiers into Niger's neighbor Mali this month to drive back al-Qaeda-linked rebels it said could turn the West African country into a base for international attacks.
The insurgents have threatened to hit French targets across the Sahel region in revenge and, days after the French assault, militants stormed a desert gas plant in Algeria and took hostages.
The military source confirmed a report in weekly magazine Le Point that special forces and equipment would be sent to Areva's uranium production sites in Imouraren and Arlit, but declined to go into further details.
Defence ministry officials declined to comment on the report and Areva said it did not talk about security issues.
Seven workers, including five French nationals, were kidnapped in Arlit by al Qaeda's north African arm AQIM in September 2010. It later released three of the hostages but four French citizens are still being held.
Areva, Niger's biggest single investor, has about 2,700 workers in Niger and is planning to start up a third mine in Imouraren.
The planned startup of production in Imouraren was delayed to 2013 or 2014 from 2012, following the kidnappings and a labor dispute.
An Areva spokeswoman said this month the French government had not asked the company to reduce staffing in Niger. She added Areva has an extensive security plan for its employees and that the plan has been reviewed by the French authorities.
(Reporting By John Irish, Geert de Clercq, Muriel Boselli and Michel Rose; Editing by Andrew Heavens)