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Niger Rebels Say Military Attacks Endanger French Hostages

By Bruce Latham
25 June 2008

Rebels in Niger say their bases have been bombed in the north of country, endangering four French mining employees they took hostage last week. The rebels have issued a statement condemning the attacks and questioning the government's motives. For VOA, Brent Latham has more from our regional bureau in Dakar.

On its Web site, the Nigerien Movement for Justice, known as MNJ, says its camps were attacked Tuesday by government helicopters. The statement says it is the first time that the government has used combat helicopters in an attack against them in 17 months.

There was no independent confirmation of these attacks. Niger's government has not commented on the rebel statement.

Four employees of a French mining company, three men and one woman, remain in the rebels' captivity.

The MNJ is from the ethnic Tuareg group, a nomadic people native to the Sahara Desert region. Tuareg fighters have also taken up arms against the government in nearby Mali. Both groups of fighters say they are struggling for better allocation of resources from what they say is their land.

The co-Director of the Africa Program at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Jennifer Cooke, says Niger's government has been slow to address the rebels' grievances.

"The Tuareg and in particular the MNJ group has had a long history of grievances against the government, particularly in the areas of political representation, employment, education, and economic and political manipulation from the government in Niamey," said Cooke.

The presence of international miners in the remote area has become common as the uranium industry has become more lucrative.

Niger's government says the rebels are bandits, trying to make money through violence. The government has also ruled out peace negotiations unless the rebels first lay down their arms.

But a professor of anthropology at the University of Bristol, Jeremy Keenan, says the kidnappings may be an attempt by rebels to open a direct dialogue with the mining companies.

"This is the sort of strategy that the [Niger] government fears, because the local people would much rather work with the companies in an equitable manner," said Keenan.

Keenan said he felt sure that the hostages were safe in rebel hands, but he fears government action may now worsen the situation.

"I would never discount the role of the government in Niger in provoking situations, which it has a long history of. There is probably a bigger danger in particular from the government of Niger in terms of their own agenda, trying to escalate things, rather than a danger from the rebels themselves," added Keenan.

On Sunday, the rebels issued a statement saying that the captives would be safe and would be returned to their families quickly, with a message for the Niger government and the French company, Areva.

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