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Government, Rebels Conflict in Mineral-Rich Desert Region of Niger

Over the past year, desert nomad rebels in northern Niger have renewed violence against government targets in the uranium-rich Saharan region because of what the rebels say is continued neglect and discrimination. The government blames the violence on drug smuggling. Phuong Tran traveled through this conflict zone, and filed this report to VOA.

Rebels with the Movement of Nigeriens for Justice have stepped up desert attacks like this one earlier this year. More than 100 rebel fighters and civilians have died in the fighting. Rebels target military posts and companies supplying energy to the region's biggest money maker: uranium mines.

The rebels are mostly ethnic Tuareg, a desert nomad group found in the Sahara and Sahel.

Rebel armed forces leader Amoumene Kalakouawa fought in the last Tuareg uprising during the 1990s.

He says the state still neglects nomads despite a decade-old peace deal.

"More than 30 years of mining has left us even poorer than before. We just want a say in what happens in the desert. And for the state to share uranium profits with us,” he added. “What they are doing is like building a water well in someone's home, but not letting people who live there drink from it."

Niger's President Mamadou Tandja refuses to negotiate with the rebels, calling them drug traffickers. He says they want to keep out law enforcement and mining companies in order to transport drugs through the mostly unpatrolled desert. The rebels deny this.

Up until last year, France was the region's only mining investor, using Niger's uranium to supply its nuclear energy needs. But last year, numerous other new energy-hungry investors won mining contracts in the north.

Rebels have threatened to disrupt mining activities until they get a bigger share of profits.

Throughout the mountains, rebel fighters train in desert warfare. Since last August, the government has placed more than half the country under a state of alert. Security forces carry out identity checks and detain people suspected of working with the rebels.

Herder Istapha Ehiya says his grazing camels wandered last December out of the desert onto the paved road linking the mining towns, Arlit and Agadez.

"Soldiers stopped me when I crossed the road looking for my camels. They searched me, shot three of my camels, and accused me of planting a land mine that killed government soldiers the day before.” said Ehiya.

The 70-year-old herder lives 40 kilometers from where he was arrested. He says he did not know about the mine explosion.

Ehiya was released after nine days in detention.

He has retreated deeper into the Air Mountains. He says that perhaps in this corner of the desert he and his animals will be safe from the rebellion.