France's Hollande in Niger to oversee troop deployment

French President Francois Hollande arrived Friday in Niger where he will oversee the deployment of French troops in a new operation to battle radical Islamist movements in the Sahel.

Hollande flew to the capital Niamey from Ivory Coast, where he was joined by leading French businessmen in his first visit to the west African state.

Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou gave Hollande a red-carpet welcome at the airport, before hosting high-level talks covering security and development in one of the world's poorest countries. The largely desert nation is a key source of uranium for France's nuclear industry.

Niamey police arrested 10 members of a protest movement known as "Sauvons le Niger" (Let's Save Niger), who had planned to demonstrate against uranium mining by French giant energy Areva along the route of the presidential cortege, two group members told AFP.

The police released three activists after several hours in detention, but held seven others, according to Nou Arzika, a civil society activist. No comment was available from police.

Like neighbouring Mali, Niger has been hit hard by the activities of radical jihadists, mainly in its northern regions.

After launching Operation Serval in January 2013 to help drive armed Islamists out of towns they occupied in northern Mali for over nine months, Paris last Sunday announced a far broader counter-terrorism initiative.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said some 3,000 soldiers will serve in Operation Barkhane, covering the sub-Saharan states of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Operation Serval is being wound up, but 1,000 French troops in will remain in northern Mali as part of the new operation.

Hollande visited an air base in Niger housing unmanned drones that gather intelligence across the entire Sahel-Saharan region, a vast stretch of northwest African desert.

The French leader will fly later on Friday to Chad, where France has troops permanently stationed and plans to establish Operation Barkhane's headquarters.

swi-jf/nb/pg