Local officials in Niger have accused rebels of taking civilians prisoners in an attack last Friday near the town of Arlit. The rebels say they had nothing to do with the inter-tribal conflict and are traveling to meet with leaders to mediate the communal dispute. Phuong Tran has this report from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.
Armed rebels took four civilians prisoner, including a religious leader, according to an official communiqué issued Sunday from the northern region of Agadez. It says the attackers took the prisoners while looking for the director of a national human rights organization.
But rebel Boutali Ag Tchiwerin denies responsibility and says Friday's fighting was part of decades-long tribal conflict between different families who are members of the Tuareg ethnic group.
He says the families have released the prisoners. Tchiwerin says he is traveling with a leader of the Movement of Nigeriens for Justice, Sidi Sidi Aklou, who intends to meet with leaders from both families in conflict.
He adds the rebels are worried because a number of them come from the village, Titirtagatt, where the prisoners were taken.
Just days before, the rebels attacked another northern town, Tanout, when they captured four soldiers and a civilian. The London-based human rights lobbying group, Amnesty International, expressed concern that a government worker, Garba Kona, had been captured.
Rebels say they took the civilian hostage because he is a symbol of government power in the region.
The rebels hold more than 30 prisoners in the mountains.
Human rights organizations have criticized both the Niger government and the rebels for violence that increasingly has touched civilians through targeted executions, mine explosions, and livestock killings. Human Rights Watch estimates about 80 civilians have died in mine explosions.
The rebels launched attacks one year ago, saying the government has not honored its peace promises from earlier rebellions to invest more in northern communities, home to most of the country's mineral wealth as well as ethnic nomad Tuaregs.
Niger President Mamadou Tandja dismisses the rebels as bandits, traffickers, and terrorists who want control of the northern mountainous region to continue smuggling contraband to Algeria, and beyond.
Fighting has halted tourism in the north, and displaced thousands of families who have either fled further into the mountains, or south close to the capital.
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.