By Abdoulaye Massalatchi
NIAMEY, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Niger’s Tuareg-led northern rebels warned on Tuesday that any mining contracts granted by the government were invalid, just days after Niamey signed a landmark deal with a Chinese company to produce uranium.
The rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), which has killed some 45 soldiers since February in a campaign for greater regional autonomy, said in a statement the uranium-rich territories of northern Niger belonged to the Tuareg people.
On Friday, Niger granted a Chinese-controlled company, Somina, the right to produce 700 tonnes of uranium a year in 2009-2010 from the Azelik mineral deposit, ending the production monopoly of French utility Areva CEPFi.PA.
"All contracts awarded by Niamey are invalid as long as the indigenous people are not involved and do not benefit from them," the MNJ said on its Web site www.m-n-j.blogspot.com.
"No exploitation (we repeat) will be possible today and less so tomorrow, because these lands have their owners: the indigenous Tuaregs," the statement said.
Somina is a venture between the Niger state, with 33 percent, and the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (Sino-U). It plans to make investments of 150 billion CFA francs ($335 million).
Sino-U is a wholly-owned unit of the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), which runs the Asian giant’s nuclear industry.
Areva, which has operated in Niger for four decades, has been caught in the middle of the conflict, with both the government and rebels accusing it of funding the other side. In April, the MNJ attacked one of Areva’s mines, killing a soldier.
The uprising echoes a bloody 1990s insurrection by the Tuaregs and other light-skinned nomads against the black African-controlled government in Niamey, hundreds of kilometres to the south.
President Mamadou Tandja’s government refuses to recognise the group and attributes the violence in the isolated, desert north to banditry and smuggling.
Justice Minister Dagra Mamadou said a seminar in Niamey on Tuesday that Niger would train judges in counter terrorism and the fight against organised crime, preparing them to cooperate in international initiatives.
In recent months, the Sahelian country has registered a rise in seizures of illegal narcotics. It is also a focus of the United States’ anti-terrorism training in the region, aimed at combating groups such as Algeria’s GSPC, now known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Giles Elgood)