UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A former Canadian diplomat who serves as U.N. special envoy to Niger has gone missing in the West African state in the bandit-infested Sahel region, U.N. officials said on Monday.
The officials said the U.N. vehicle in which envoy Robert Fowler, a Canadian aide whom they declined to identify and a local driver were traveling was found abandoned on Sunday evening some 30 miles northeast of the capital Niamey.
The vehicle's engine was still running, they said.
"We don't know whether we are dealing with a hostage situation," said Farhan Haq, a U.N. spokesman. "Authorities in Niger are trying to discover (Fowler's) whereabouts."
Fowler is based in Canada but was visiting Niger for meetings with officials there, U.N. officials said.
Niger's Foreign Ministry said, however, that Fowler had arrived in the country last week on a private visit and had left Niamey on Sunday morning without informing the Niger authorities.
In a statement broadcast on state television, the ministry said it had been established that Fowler had visited Samira, a gold-mining locality in the area, before he went missing.
"The ministry has absolutely no idea as to the motive for the special representative's disappearance," the statement said, adding that the country's security forces had been mobilized.
Armed banditry is common in Africa's Sahel region south of the Sahara, an area which is awash with illegal guns after years of sporadic conflicts and is used as a transit point for trans-Saharan smuggling of drugs, arms and migrants.
Northern nomadic Tuareg rebels of the Niger Justice Movement killed two Niger government soldiers last March in the region where Fowler disappeared, although most of the group's activities are hundreds of miles (km) away in the Sahara.
In Ottawa, foreign affairs spokeswoman Lisa Monette said Canadian officials were "actively engaged with local and U.N. officials and we're pursuing all appropriate measures at this time and following the situation very closely."
Fowler retired from Canadian public service two years ago after a 38-year career that included postings as ambassador to Italy and the United Nations. He was appointed to his U.N. job in July of this year.
Niger gained independence from France in 1960 and for many years had military or single-party civilian rule before moving toward democracy. It is one of the world's leading producers of uranium but three years ago suffered severe drought, with an estimated 3.6 million of its 13.6 million people malnourished.
The Tuareg rebellion has turned northern Niger into a military zone, halting adventure tourism in the desert, threatening uranium mining and hitting food and fuel supplies.
Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey and Randall Palmer in Ottawa; editing by Sandra Maler