NIAMEY Jan 31 (Reuters) - A leader of Niger's Tuareg rebels promised on Thursday an all-out offensive against the uranium industry including attacks on foreign-run mines and mineral convoys.
Over the last 12 months, the Niger Justice Movement (MNJ) has attacked army convoys and bases, killing around 50 soldiers. This has forced Niger's government to impose a state of alert in the north of the Sahelian country, a major producer of uranium which is used to fuel nuclear reactors.
"We are going to attack the uranium mines, including those belonging to Areva, halt the operation of the plants or the opening up of new sites, and target the road shipments to the sea," Tuareg leader Rhissa Ag Boula told French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur.
Last year MNJ fighters attacked a northern mine site operated by French nuclear group Areva and also briefly abducted a Chinese uranium executive.
The rebels are demanding more autonomy and a greater share of wealth in their uranium-rich northern region.
A Niger government spokesman rejected the threat in comments to Radio France International. President Mamadou Tandja's administration refuses to recognise the light-skinned nomadic desert rebels, dismissing them as "armed bandits".
Ag Boula criticised the Niger government for "handing out uranium concessions like buns" to companies from France, Canada, Australia, India, South Africa and China.
China had obtained a major part of the new concessions and the Chinese "build mining cities, bringing their own workers with them". China was selling landmines, vehicles and tanks to the Niger government, Ag Boula said in the interview.
Both the government and the rebels have accused each other of targeting civilians, particularly through laying land mines.
"The army refuses to confront the MNJ, but kills civilians," Ag Boula said. He accused government forces of persecuting Tuareg civilians suspected of sympathising with the rebellion.
Ag Boula was a ringleader of a previous northern Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. After a peace deal, he served as tourism minister before being sacked in 2004 when he was briefly arrested in connection with the murder of a local politician.
He said army operations in the vast, rugged region around Agadez had driven hundreds of civilians from outlying oasis towns and destroyed the desert tourism industry.
Ag Boula criticised the government for refusing to negotiate with the MNJ. "The worst thing is that there are no signs of an opening or dialogue," he said.
He denied suggestions the Tuareg-led MNJ had connections with Algeria-based Islamic extremists allied to al Qaeda. "We have no connections with any foreign group," he said.