Niger Rebels Say Military Attacks Endanger French Hostages

25 June 2008

Rebels in Niger say their bases have been bombed in the north ofcountry, endangering four French mining employees they took hostagelast week. The rebels have issued a statement condemning the attacksand questioning the government's motives.  For VOA, Brent Latham hasmore from our regional bureau in Dakar.

On its Web site,the Nigerien Movement for Justice, known as MNJ, says its camps wereattacked Tuesday by government helicopters. The statement says it isthe first time that the government has used combat helicopters in anattack 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.  

TheMNJ is from the ethnic Tuareg group, a nomadic people native to theSahara Desert region. Tuareg fighters have also taken up arms againstthe government in nearby Mali. Both groups of fighters say they arestruggling for better allocation of resources from what they say istheir land.

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

"The Tuareg and inparticular the MNJ group has had a long history of grievances againstthe government, particularly in the areas of political representation,employment, education, and economic and political manipulation from thegovernment 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'sgovernment says the rebels are bandits, trying to make money throughviolence. The government has also ruled out peace negotiations unlessthe rebels first lay down their arms.

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

"This is thesort of strategy that the [Niger] government fears, because the localpeople would much rather work with the companies in an equitablemanner," said Keenan.  

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

"I wouldnever discount the role of the government in Niger in provokingsituations, which it has a long history of. There is probably a biggerdanger in particular from the government of Niger in terms of their ownagenda, trying to escalate things, rather than a danger from the rebelsthemselves," added Keenan.

On Sunday, the rebelsissued a statement saying that the captives would be safe and would bereturned to their families quickly, with a message for the Nigergovernment and the French company, Areva.