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Saharan Experts Fear Spread of Niger's Tuareg Rebel Violence

Recent rebel violence from a nomadic tribe in northern Niger may escalate into civil war according to analysts, who are concerned the revolt may affect neighboring countries in the West African Saharan region. Phuong Tran brings us this report from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

The Tuareg rebel group, Niger Movement for Justice, has claimed responsibility for recent deadly mine explosions, and violence that has resulted in at least seven deaths this month.

The government has refused to negotiate with the nomad fighters until they stop their attacks, dismissing them as "bandits" and "drug smugglers."

African security analysts say this tactic is dangerous.

David Zounmenou with the South African Institute for Security Studies says the current stalemate can lead to civil war and divide the country into rebel and government held territory.

British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan has worked in the Saharan region for the past 40 years, and says Niger's remote northeast, home to the country's uranium mines and Tuareg rebels, is a rough place to conquer.

"The Niger army is not doing real well in the military sense," said Keenan. "It is up against rebels who are supremely in command of the terrain. If that escalates, it has the potential to spread very rapidly into Mali."

Both analysts say rebels in Niger and Mali formed an alliance last month called the Alliance of Niger and Malian Tuaregs. Rebels in neither country have confirmed or provided details.

Keenan says a Tuareg alliance could change the domestic uprising into a regional problem.

"The situation in the region now is probably more dangerous than at any other time in the threat of a wider almost trans-Saharan conflagration of rebellion," he said.

The government has accused "rich foreign powers", of backing the revolt to weaken the government's ability to bargain on mining contracts and initiate oil exploration.

The nomad rebels last took up arms in the 1990s, saying foreign mining companies exploited their tribe with government support.

A foreign-mediated peace deal ended fighting in 1995.

Last February, the rebels reignited the low-intensity war against the government, demanding more services and a bigger share of the country's uranium royalties, a major source of government revenue.

A Niger government spokesman told VOA the rebels' demands are unrealistic. Iboun Gueye said uranium profits are for the entire country, just like gold mining royalties in the west must be distributed nationwide and not just where the mineral is found.

The fighting has killed at least 44 people since the beginning of the year, critically wounded dozens, led to the hostage taking of more than 70 government security forces, and a number of high-ranking defections.

Despite the country's mineral wealth, the United Nations has ranked Niger's living conditions as the worst in the world for the past two years.