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Group linked to Algeria gas plant attack claims Niger raids

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - An al Qaeda-linked group that carried out the raid on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January has claimed to have participated in Thursday's attacks in Niger.

A statement posted on the internet on Friday was signed by Khalid Abu al-Abbas, better known as Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a leading figure in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

At least 21 people were killed and dozens wounded in coordinated dawn assaults on a uranium mine run by French company Areva at Arlit and the military base in Agadez, Niger, on Thursday.

The statement said the raid was a response to Niger's participation in operations in neighboring Mali and claims by Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou that the Islamists had been defeated.

"This is the first of our responses to the statement of the president of Niger - from his masters in Paris - that he eliminated jihad and the mujahideen militarily," it read.

"We will have more operations, by the strength and power of Allah, and not only that, but we will move the battle to the inside of his country if he doesn't withdraw his mercenary army."

Members of the brigade took part in the attack alongside fighters from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) it said. MUJWA, an Islamist group based in the desert Sahel and Sahara regions, claimed responsibility earlier for the Niger attacks.

The statement was sent to Mauritania's ANI news agency and posted on radical Islamist internet forums. It was also posted and translated into English by jihadist monitoring group SITE, but its authenticity could not be independently verified.

Belmokhtar's men were among 40 jihadist fighters who raided the desert facility at In Amenas, Algeria, in late January, leaving scores of militants and hostages, many of them western workers, dead.

MUJWA and al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM pledged to strike at French interests across the region after Paris launched a ground and air campaign in January that broke their 10-month grip over the northern two-thirds of Mali.

(Reporting by Joe Bavier and Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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