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Niger Anti-Tax Leaders Released

Leaders of a popular anti-tax movement arrested last month for plotting against the state have been released in Niger. Government officials say they hope the move will help put an end to weeks of protests and strikes against a new tax on essential goods.

The five members of Niger's anti-tax coalition, Quality and Fairness Against Costly Living, greeted journalists and well-wishers in the capital Niamey late Thursday and thanked their supporters at home and abroad for helping push for their release.

The men, who have led widely followed protests against the new 19 percent tax hike on goods like water, cooking oil and electricity, were released earlier in the day after charges against them were dropped.

The consumer rights activists, who include the movement's president, Nouhou Arzika, were arrested last month after several of them went on radio and television calling Nigeriens to pray for an end to, what they called, the country's misery.

Niger's interior minister, Mounkaila Modi, later denounced the media action as an attempt to destroy a democratically elected government. The five had been charged with inciting the gathering of armed groups, forming an unauthorized association and plotting against the authority of the state.

Government spokesman Ben Omar Mohamed says the prisoners' release, which comes as civil society leaders gear up for new protests Saturday, is a sign of good faith from Niger's authorities.

He says the government is willing to make concessions and compromises to find a way out of the crisis. And, he says, Niger's civil society should do the same.

President Mamadou Tandja remains firm on keeping the tax, which he says is needed to meet the demands of the International Monetary Fund and regional banks.

One of the released men, civil society representative Moussa Tchangari, says nothing has changed and the coalition plans to go ahead with Saturday's protests.

He says, just because he and others were freed does not mean they will stop protesting.