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Pressure Mounts for Government Talks with Niger Rebels

In Niger, civil society and government officials are increasing pressure on the president to negotiate with rebels to end a months-long deadly uprising in the north. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West African bureau in Dakar.

Niger human rights organizations recently sent a letter to President Mamadou Tandja asking him to shut down what they believe is a government-sponsored website that condemns as traitors people who support dialogue with the rebels.

Government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar denies any government support of the site.

President Tandja has refused to discuss the fighters' complaints of government neglect until they disarm. He dismisses them as violent bandits and drug traffickers who created the rebellion to hide criminal activities.

Weila Ilguilas, a member of the Collective of Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights and Democracy, says it is urgent for the government to break its silence. Ilguilas says it does not matter who the rebels are or whether their rebellion is justified. He says as long as people are dying and the economy is suffering, political dialogue is needed.

Ilguilas adds that fighting has cut off access to the north, making it hard to deliver food and medicine to an already remote area.

Since the rebellion started eight months ago, landmines in the war zone have killed dozens of government soldiers.

Government spokesman Omar says people who support dialogue are misguided. Omar says private organizations that do not clearly understand the situation are defending the rebels and calling for talks, but that the government knows how dangerous the rebels are. He says the rebels want to take land from Niger and Mali to form their own republic.

The fighters have not made recent secession demands. They have demanded more uranium profits and say the government has not fulfilled the 1995 peace deal after the last rebellion. Officials say the agreement has been mostly honored, and that uranium monies are for the entire country, not just those who live close to the mines.

Recent government efforts to end the fighting include sending a delegation to Libya to discuss the rebellion with President Muammar Gadhafi.

Earlier this week, a small group of Nigerien lawmakers traveled to the north to meet with rebel leaders.

Tuareg rebel spokesman Mohamed El Kontchi Kriska says even if the government proposed formal talks now, the rebels would refuse. "We want the government to respect our rebellion. If he (the president) confirms our rebellion, then we can start negotiations," he said.

The Niger rebels have declared a temporary cease fire until the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which ends next week.