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Niger Troops Clash With 'Bandits,' Abducted Bus Passengers Released

Government troops in Niger have killed five armed men they describe as "bandits," in the north of the country, where there have been recent attacks by nomadic fighters. In a separate attack Thursday, a local journalist following the story reports armed men attacked a bus and took several passengers and the driver hostage, but later released them. Naomi Schwarz in VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar has more.

Government forces fought Thursday with what the defense minister called "armed bandits," killed five men and seized three vehicles and assorted arms. The clash occurred in a remote desert region, 1,200 kilometers northeast of Niger's capital.

Serge Hilpron, a journalist following the story, says armed men also attacked a public bus and took the driver and several passengers hostage. Hilpron, who is in the region, says the bus company confirmed the attack.

Hilpron says there have been attacks on buses in the past, in which security personnel were taken. But he says this is the first time passengers and a driver have been taken.

But he does not think there is a connection between the bus attack and the clash with government soldiers.

Hilpron says the army action was most likely retaliation for an attack on their forces last month, in which three government soldiers were killed.

A group called the Movement for Justice, made up of ethnic Tuareg, claimed responsibility, and made several political and economic demands. However, the government dismissed the group's claims, and says they are merely highway robbers.

Human rights activist Saidou Arji says this is a mistake.

"At the government side, the officials conclude there is not rebels," he said. "You have only robbers. It is true that you have robbers in this region, but when people have some arms and issue statements about some political requests, the government must listen to them and not conclude quickly that there is not political or rebel movements."

He said, in the past, the government has been slow to recognize political movements, and this has led to increased tensions.

In 1995, the government signed a peace agreement with rebelling nomads in the north, but insecurity remains. Arji says the peace agreement addresses the right problems, but the government should do a better job of implementing it.

He said, "I think that the best solution will be the review of this kind of agreement in order to correct, to improve this process."

But he says even if this is done, problems may remain.

"You have also some groups, which are not interested by the peace. So, in this case we have nothing to do," he said.

Niger is one of the world's poorest countries. Desertification has led to increased tension over land and water rights. Niger also has significant uranium and oil reserves, although the landlocked country has not yet found an effective way to bring the oil to a port for export.