Suicide bombers have launched simultaneous attacks on military and mining targets in Niger, sparking renewed fears that attacks by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists could spill across borders in West Africa’s Sahara desert.

Cars packed with explosives were detonated at the same time almost 100 miles apart, killing at least 17 soldiers at a military barracks in Agadez, and injuring dozens at a plant owned by French nuclear giant Areva in Arlit.

Niger’s Defence Minister said the attacks were carried out by terrorist groups were believed to have links to neighbouring Mali and Libya.

“We suspect armed groups linked to al-Qaeda, maybe operating in Mali but who have come through southern Libya,” said Defence Minister Mahamadou Karidjo.

“The situation is under control and the search for the other attackers is under way.” The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) — one of the groups that triggered a war in Mali after seizing control of the country’s north — has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attacks are the latest to heighten concerns about the effects of the war on Mali on neighbouring countries in the sparsely populated Sahara region, which has seen a burgeoning growth in jihadist activity supported by kidnappings and the trade in drugs and other smuggled goods over its porous desert borders.

In January Algeria was drawn deeper into the crisis in Mali when a group led by former al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar crossed from Mali into Algeria and took more than 800 people hostage at oil plant In Amenas in Algeria, killing 39.

Claims that Thursday’s attack on Niger involved militants travelling from southern Libya come after the Guardian reported last month that southern Libya is becoming a key route for militants being pushed out of Mali, where they are taking advantage of instability since the fall of Qadhafi.

Areva, the world’s second largest uranium producer, said that its mine was “badly damaged” forcing it to stop production. Although Areva has been attacked by AQIM in the past — with five French workers taken hostage at the site in 2010 — today’s suicide bombings are the first of their kind in Niger, which been singled out as a target for its role in the military intervention in Mali, for its relationship with France — which obtains 20% of its uranium from Niger — and with the U.S., which signed an agreement earlier this year to establish a new military base in the country.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013