UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
NIGER: Five killed as army clashes with Tuaregs in desert north
NIAMEY, 7 Oct 2004 (IRIN) - Five people died when Niger government forces clashed with bandits claiming to be Tuareg rebels in the Air mountains in the desert north of the country, the government said.
"Our defence and security forces who had launched an operation to pursue... the group in the Air mountains fell into an ambush," Interior Minister Albade Abouba said in a statement read on national radio on Tuesday.
The minister said one soldier and four bandits had been killed in the ambush, which happened on 1 October in the mountain range 1,000 km northeast of the capital, Niamey. Another four soldiers were injured and two more were still missing, he said.
Mohamed Ag Boula, the brother of Rhissa Ag Boula who used to lead the now-dissolved Air and Azaouak Liberation Front (FLAA) rebel group, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Rhissa Ag Boula won a senior position in government as part of the 1995 peace deal, which brought a four-year Tuareg rebellion in northern Niger to an end.
But in February he was sacked as tourism minister and shortly afterwards he was arrested in connection with the murder of an official in Niger's ruling party in the Tuareg stronghold of Agadez, 800 km northeast of Niamey.
In an interview with Radio France Internationale earlier this week, his brother Mohamed said he was personally responsible for the attack and that he was leading a 200-strong group which was fighting to defend the rights of the Tuareg, Toubou and Semori nomadic populations of northern Niger.
"We are defending our rights in Niger. The current government has not implemented the 1995 accords. Besides, we are demanding the liberation of all members of the ex-rebellion currently in detention," Mohamed told the French radio station.
Niger's interior minister said the 1 October assailants were the same people who had carried out attacks on vehicles along the main trans-Sahara highway in northern Niger over the last few months.
In June, and then again in August, armed men attacked passenger buses driving between Agadez, the main town in northern Niger, and Arlit, a uranium mining settlement 240 km to the north. Three people, including a two-year-old child, were shot dead and 13 were injured in the incidents.
These attacks followed reports that former Tuareg rebel fighters, integrated into the national army under the 1995 peace deal, had deserted their posts. They were alleged to be regrouping in the Air Mountains to resume hostilities.
The authorities in Niger have strongly denied both the allegations of mass desertion and the renaissance of a rebellion and insist on calling the gunmen bandits and not rebels.
But the interior minister on Tuesday did admit that an army deserter had been one of the three men captured by defence forces after the latest clashes. Four more members of the armed group had voluntarily surrendered, and several weapons and quantities of ammunition had been recovered, he added.
However, the minister stuck fast to his description of the men as bandits. Even after the Tuareg rebellion formally ended in 1995, banditry remained a serious problem in northern Niger until 2000, forcing traffic on the trans-Sahara highway to travel in convoys protected by heavily-armed soldiers.
The interior minister belittled the group's "so-called political demands", which he suggested were just a mask for their criminal activities.
"The government reminds the national and international opinion that acts of drug trafficking, murder, and assassination of peaceful citizens can in no way justify so-called political demands," Abouba said.
Nonetheless, security remains a concern in this mainly desert nation of 11 million people. In June the United Nations imposed tighter restrictions on staff movements in northern Niger, upgrading the area to phase two, the second of five security levels.
This requires all staff members and their families to stay at home unless otherwise instructed and precludes travel into or within the region unless it has been officially authorised as essential.
The United States has also taken an interest in improving security in Niger, by providing anti-terrorist training to the military as part of Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative.
Around 130 soldiers in Niger have just completed two months of training by US marines. They now form the Niger Rapid Intervention Company, which aims to step up the fight against the illicit trafficking of arms, merchandise and illegal migrants and prevent the establishment of terrorism and banditry networks.
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