NIAMEY Jan 31 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
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
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.
"Fifty years after Niger's independence, Tuaregs no longer
accept others running their affairs for them. We've had enough
of being dominated."
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Robert Woodward)