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Niger seeks help from Sudan, Libya against rebels

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August 25, 2007 (NIAMEY) — Niger’s prime minister and senior military officials left for Sudan and Libya on Saturday to seek help ending an insurgency by Tuareg-led rebels in the country’s remote desert north, a senior army source said.

President Mamadou Tandja declared a state of alert in the region around the ancient Saharan town of Agadez on Friday, giving the security forces extra powers to fight the 7-month-old insurgency in which at least 45 soldiers have been killed.

Prime Minister Seyni Oumarou, the deputy head of the armed forces, General Seyni Garba, and other senior officers left for Khartoum on Saturday and would travel on to Libya, the government said in a statement.

"The president has charged them with a mission to encourage all states (in the region) concerned by the question of arms trafficking to lend their help bringing an end to the conflict in the north of Niger," a senior military official told Reuters.

"President Tandja has reaffirmed that this is not a rebellion but a movement of bandits backed by interest groups and foreign powers. He believes countries around the Sahara can do something to force them to lay down their weapons."

Tandja’s government refuses to recognise the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), which has claimed a series of deadly attacks against military targets and industrial interests in the region since launching a campaign in February.

The group says it is fighting for greater economic development and a share in the region’s mineral wealth. Government officials say to recognise and negotiate with the MNJ would be to give them a legitimacy they do not merit.

Security sources say they believe MNJ fighters are receiving ammunition, weapons and fuel supplies via the ancient trading routes which criss-cross the Sahara from Sudan in the east, Libya and Algeria in the north, to Mali in the west.

The north of Niger, an impoverished and landlocked former French colony, has long been a hotbed of dissent. Light-skinned Tuareg tribesmen waged a rebellion in the 1990s to demand greater autonomy from a black-African dominated government.

The region is home to some of the world’s biggest reserves of uranium. French nuclear giant Areva <CEPFi.PA> operates two mines there and other foreign firms are prospecting.

The MNJ says the 1995 peace deal that ended the previous insurgency has never been fully implemented and that the region remains marginalised. The government says the vast majority of Tuareg demands from the 1990s have been met.

(Reuters)

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