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Libya's President Takes Niger Journalists to Court

Tuareg rebels fighting in Niger say they have released 14 government soldiers after Libyan mediation. Meanwhile, a Niger court delayed a hearing until next month of a libel case by Libya's President Gaddafi against Niger journalists. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

Mr. Gaddafi filed a defamation lawsuit against three independent Niger newspapers for accusing him of backing the Tuareg rebellion in order to get more access to Niger's potential mineral and oil wealth.

The court asked Mr. Gaddafi's lawyers to provide more information about how the Libyan leader was defamed by the journalists he is suing.

Leonard Vincent with the Paris-based journalist lobby group, Reporters Without Borders, says the delay increases his concern the trial will become more political.

Vincent says a current Niger government restriction on coverage of the rebellion hurts the journalists' chances for a fair trial.

For the past eight months, rebel Tuareg nomads have waged a low-intensity war in the uranium-rich northeast Agadez region, demanding a larger share of the region's wealth.

"Niger justice might not give the same ruling that it might have in times of peace," said Vincent. "We have noticed that the Niger authorities have been very, very irritable around the issue of the Tuareg fighting."

The Niger government has broadened its powers of arrest after declaring a state of emergency in the northeast and restricted broadcasts of the rebellion. The government also recently shut down independent newspaper Air Info for three months and the local office of Radio France International for one month, accusing both of biased pro-rebellion reporting.

The journalists defend their reporting as fair, and say they are victims of war-time censorship.

Reporter Without Borders' Vincent says journalists found guilty of libel face harsh punishment in Niger.

"If for instance, Mr. Gaddafi were to attack a French newspaper, the worst could be that the newspaper be condemned to a fine," said Vincent. "Here in Niger, it can send people to prison for heavy and long prison terms."

Bousada Ben Ali, the director of L'Action, one of the three newspapers that are the target of Mr. Gaddafi's defamation lawsuit, says he is not worried because he has proof to back his paper's report that Mr. Gaddafi supports the Niger Tuareg rebellion.

The Niger government has accused, in its words, rich foreign powers, and specifically, the French uranium group, Areva, of supporting Tuareg fighters to frighten away potential investors competing for mining rights.

Government officials in France and Libya, as well as Tuareg fighters have all denied foreign support of the rebellion.

Niger government officials have reached out to Libya for help in quelling the rebellion that has killed dozens of government soldiers.

Fighters say the government has not honored its earlier peace promises when the Tuaregs last revolted in the 1990s.

Government officials say they have fulfilled most peace deal agreements, and dismiss the fighters as violent bandits and smugglers.

More than a dozen government forces remain in captivity in Niger's northeast mountains.

Rebel leaders told VOA they have released 14 government soldiers after recent Libyan intervention. Niger government officials have not confirmed the release.