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Last Updated: Monday, 14 July, 2003, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
Niger upset by uranium slur
Nomads in Niger
Niger's main export is uranium
In Niger, there is continuing anger and dismay at suggestions that it would consider selling uranium to Iraq.

Last week local newspapers were full of criticism of President George W Bush during his whistle-stop tour of Africa when allegations of contact with Iraq again became headline news.

Calls were made in Niger for President Bush to visit in person to apologise for raising the uranium issue during his State of the Union address last year.

The private weekly Le Democrate posed that very question in a headline: Should Niger make the US apologise?

Some radicals in the country even suggested that Niger should complain to the International Court of Justice over President Bush's comments.

Niger is the world's third largest exporter of uranium after Canada and Australia and it is vital to the country's economy. In 1997, Uranium accounted for 70% of export revenues.

Denials

Yet the authorities in Niamey have not gone on record this time.

The poor and sparsely populated nation is unused to Western attention and the government will be keen not to jeopardise the significant help it receives from the United States.

There are three times as many American as French aid workers in the former French colony, says the BBC's Idy Barou in the capital, Niamey.

Conveniently the mines minister has been out of contact in the United States during the past two weeks and is not expected back in Niger until the end of this week.

Whether he could add anything to what is already known about the source of the uranium reports is unclear.

There have already been several denials that the Iraqis had been seeking to buy uranium from Niger in the past few years.

Just two months ago the mines minister said the allegations were "pure invention" and "not true".

In December 2002, Prime Minister Hama Hamadou told the nation: "Iraq has never bought uranium from Niger, and the Niger Government has never discussed selling uranium to Iraq."

Mines

Niger produces almost 3,000 tons of uranium per year, which it sells mainly to France and Japan.

It has two northern mines within a few kilometres of each other. They are both operated by the French company Cogema - one in a joint venture with a local company and other with a state-owned concern.

Niger cannot sell its uranium to whoever it likes
Niger PM Hama Hamadou

The raw uranium is exported to France for processing via Cotonou, Benin's capital.

Niger's French-run mines come under the control of the French atomic energy commission.

Our correspondent says that the selling of uranium is basically determined by Cogema and the Niger authorities have no real role in making the deals or distributing the materials.

Mr Hamadou said as much in his a televised address: "Niger cannot sell its uranium to whoever it likes: it has neither the technological means, nor the military capability, nor the ability to do so."

Joseph Wilson, a former US diplomat who went to investigate the issue in Niger concluded as much, saying that controls on Niger's uranium mining were far too strict for any deal with Iraq to be credible.




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