Gunmen have attacked a uranium plant operated by French nuclear power giant Areva at Bakouma in the southeast of the Central African Republic, army and French diplomatic sources revealed on Monday.
"A violent clash" on Sunday afternoon pitted Central African troops against "an unidentified group of armed men attempting to launch an assault on the site of mining company Areva," a military statement said.
"The enemy did some material damage and pulled back while taking a sizeable quantity mainly of food with them," Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Ladawa said in the statement, which was read on national radio.
"For the moment, it's difficult to establish a casualty toll from the fighting. However, we sustained no losses either among personnel or the population at Bakouma," he said.
A military source in Bangui, who asked not to be named, said that the raid had claimed no victims but operations were under way to "neutralise this group of armed men, who are believed to be members of the Chadian rebel Popular Front for Recovery (FPR) led by 'General' Baba Ladde."
The FPR has been active in the Central African Republic since 2008.
Last January, the Central African army attacked FPR positions in the north, about 400 kilometres from Bakouma, and announced that they had contained the rebels.
"A few hours before the clash, these armed men killed a villager 25 kilometres from Bakouma. They took hostage an elder and a young man who served as their guides," the source said.
A French diplomatic source said that five Areva staff at the uranium mine were in contact with French authorities to find "the most suitable solution" for them.
According to another anonymous official, the rebels "are not on the (Areva) site, but they are still in the Bakouma zone.They are heavily loaded and they are trying to recruit porters."
The Areva group issued no immediate statement regarding the attack.
In November 2011, Areva delayed the launch of mining operations at Bakouma after uranium prices fell in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
About 170 people were then working at the Bakouma site.
With an estimated 32,000 tonnes of uranium to be mined, the site is considered important by Areva, even if it does not match the 180,000 tonnes of the giant Imouraren mine in Niger.
A 2008 peace process led to accords with most of the rebel groups in the country who have laid down their arms, but the Central African Republic remains prey to armed groups including rebels, highway robbers and poachers.
Rebels from Joseph Kony's Ugandan-born Lord's Resistance Army are also active.