NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger’s army shot dead seven Tuareg civilians “by accident” following a fire fight with rebels from the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) in the uranium-rich north, the defence ministry said on Monday.
One fighter from the Tuareg-led MNJ was killed in the gun battle which took place on Sunday in the desert region of Tiguidit, some 80 km (50 miles) northeast of the provincial capital of Agadez.
The civilians were shot when their four Toyota pickups strayed onto the battlefield shortly after the end of the hostilities, and were peppered with bullets by the government forces. Two of those killed were well-known Tuareg traders, Sidi Amar and Ousmane Sidi.
“This accident has deeply affected the army which has in its ranks a member of the family of one of those killed,” read the ministry statement.
Authorities said the dead civilians had been informed of military operations and told not to enter the area.
The MNJ has killed at least 49 soldiers, mainly using land mines on remote desert highways, in a 10-month campaign for greater autonomy for Niger’s isolated north.
In the first sign of a new urban front to the MNJ’s campaign, two people were wounded on Monday when their truck hit a landmine in the town of Maradi in central Niger, less than a month after the government warned the rebel group was plotting acts of “urban terrorism”.
President Mamdou Tandja’s administration last month extended a state of alert in northern Niger, saying the MNJ was planning to bring its violent uprising from desert regions to towns and cities.
“A vehicle carrying sacks of nuts and some passengers hit a mine in a street in Maradi,” a senior police official told Reuters. “There were two people injured, including the driver who was seriously wounded and is in hospital.”
The attack at Maradi, some 550 km (340 miles) east of the capital Niamey, was the first successful urban attack during the uprising by the light-skinned nomadic Tuareg people.
On November 21 police foiled an attempt to detonate an anti-tank mine in a fuel depot in the town of Dosso, 140 km east of Niamey.
Writing by Daniel Flynn; editing by Ralph Boulton