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Niger Forces on Alert Following Surge in  'Bandit Attacks'

Security forces in Niger remain on alert following what the government says is an escalation of bandit attacks in the northern Agadez region. Niger officials on Wednesday sought to allay people's fears of renewed rebel activity in the West African country.

The attacks by unidentified armed men this week left two paramilitary police officers dead in the northern town of Agadez. It was the latest in a string of violent incidents in the region.

The Agadez area on the edge of the Sahara desert was the scene of a five year rebellion by members of the nomadic Tuareg group and others. The armed insurgence ended with the signing of peace accords in 1995.

The latest violence, however, has raised concern among many Nigeriens that there may be a resurgence of unrest.

Niger's Defense Minister Sabiou Dady Gaoh told VOA Wednesday, the government regards the attackers as mere criminals.

Mr. Gaoh said the government sees what is happening as a case of recurring banditry. Since January, he says, victims have included Nigeriens as well as foreign tourists in the area of Agadez. He says the attacks have also involved the theft of vehicles.

The defense minister denied news reports that said the military is sending troop reinforcements to the region.

Meanwhile, soldiers in the southeastern town of Diffa on Wednesday commandeered vehicles and fired shots into the air. A group of soldiers took over a radio station. They forced the staff to read a statement on the air, in which the soldiers said they are demanding better living conditions. The soldiers said they would enforce a nighttime curfew in the town until further notice.

There was no indication that Wednesday's incidents in Diffa are related to recent violence in the Agadez region.

Observers say the violence in recent days has been the most serious in Niger since the country returned to civilian rule under President Mamadou Tandja two years ago, following a bloody 1999 military coup.