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Niger Conflict Draws in More Civilians


In Niger, a desert rebellion in the northern half of the country has displaced thousands of civilians. Rebels have said those who remain and do not join them will be considered enemies. And the army says anyone working with the rebels will be arrested. VOA reporter Phuong Tran talks to civilians in Niger's Air Mountains and brings us this second part of a week-long series.

Niger's mountainous desert covers more than half the country, and the United Nations calls it is one of the most difficult places in the world to live.

In early 2007, a predominately Tuareg ethnic group, the Nigerien Movement for Justice, attacked several military targets in Niger's northern region and events have since evolved into a budding insurrection.

The MNJ is demanding, as they did during their last rebellion in the 1990s, a greater share of uranium profits, government power, and control over their communities.

Recently, the rebels have threatened to sabotage one of the country's biggest moneymakers: uranium mines.

The government has responded by extending a six-month state of alert that makes it easier for the army to search homes, check identities and arrest people they suspect of having ties to the rebels.

Herder Ahmed Koutan says the army warns and punishes potential rebel collaborators by killing their are we supposed do to now? We have no transportation. No food. We cannot water our gardens if we cannot get to the well."

Government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar says the army has no interest in killing camels, and that the prospect of a national army killing camels, goats and donkeys is ridiculous.

But herder Koutan says everyone knows how nomads need their animals to survive. He says he uses his camel to travel more than 100 kilometers a month to a larger village to buy food from a desert store. If he needs money, Koutan says he can sell a camel for almost $700, a sum that he says can support his family for one year.

Northerners say the crackdowns become more severe when government soldiers die in mine explosions. They say the army becomes anxious to find out who planted the mines.

Fatimana Imola says army officers killed and dismembered her younger brother, Imola Kalakouawa when they suspected him of planting a mine last June.

Villagers accused 25-year-old Army Lieutenant Abdou Aziz Lawali of executing Kalakouawa and two others.

Currently held as a MNJ prisoner of war, the army lieutenant says he is not responsible. He says other officers killed them out of revenge for allegedly planting mines that killed soldiers.

"How would you feel if you just saw your family die in a mine attack," he asks. He says this is the anger soldiers feel when they lose their troops and try to find out who is responsible.

U.S.-based lobby group Human Rights Watch says about 80 people have died in mine explosions over the past year, including about 30 civilians. It has asked both the rebels and army to not plant anti-vehicle landmines on roads that may have civilian traffic.

In recent months, mines exploded in the south and central of the country, hundreds of kilometers from the mineral-rich Agadez region.

University of Niamey student Boukar says he is worried the conflict will paralyze Niger
if it continues to spread. He says the longer the rebellion continues, the more it will divide Niger's civilians who will be forced to take opposing sides.

But his classmate Moussa says this is a good thing for democracy - as long as people are not punished for which side they choose.