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Niger Soldiers Continue Mutiny; Gunfire Heard in Capital - 2002-08-05

Heavy gunfire broke out overnight in Niamey, the capital of Niger, where soldiers have been staging a mutiny for the past several days. The country's prime minister has assured the population that the armed forces remain under the control of President Mamadou Tandja.

Calm returned to Niger's capital by sunrise, following what witnesses say were several hours of sporadic, but heavy gunfire, that began just after three in the morning.

Government officials say forces loyal to President Mamadou Tandja repelled an attack by mutinying soldiers, who tried to storm several armories in the capital.

The attacks in the capital came as loyalists continue to pursue mutineers in the east of the country. Last week, mutinying soldiers took over the southeastern town of Diffa, which lies along the edge of the Sahara desert. Hundreds of troops who were dispatched to the region chased the rebelling soldiers out of the town and into the desert on Saturday.

The mutineers are demanding better wages, the resignation of Niger's army chief, and direct negotiations with the Prime Minister. They had taken a number people, including the prefect of Diffa, hostage. Reports Sunday said most of the officials had been released. The whereabouts of remaining hostages remain unknown.

Niger Prime Minister Hama Amadou went on national radio and assured people that the situation in Niamey had been brought under control. Streets around the presidential palace were sealed off to traffic, which otherwise was flowing normally in the capital, although many residents decided to stay home.

The ongoing mutiny is the first in Niger since President Tandja was elected in 1999, restoring civilian rule, following a military coup that had occurred that same year.

Niger, one of the world's poorest nations, has experienced a number of army mutinies since it gained its independence from France in 1960. In addition to two military coups during the 1990s, the country also went through a five-year rebellion launched by nomadic Tuaregs. The insurgency ended in 1995 with the signing of peace accords.