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Mutiny In Niger - 2002-08-01

Mutinous soldiers in Niger continue to hold a town in the southeast of the West African country. The soldiers, who are demanding better pay and living conditions, reportedly took several local officials hostage when they seized the town. The Niger government has vowed to crack down on the mutineers.

TEXT: The soldiers are demanding the resignation of Niger's army chief and are calling for direct negotiations with the country's prime minister.

The soldiers are holding the town of Diffa (DEE-fah), where witnesses said the mutineers had earlier seized the prefect of the region and other local government officials.

The whereabouts of the officials remained unknown Thursday.

Niger's defense minister, Sabiou Dady Gaoh, has vowed the government will punish the mutinous soldiers who have launched what he said is in fact a rebellion. At a special cabinet meeting called late Wednesday, the minister said the military would take all measures necessary to bring theorganizers of the mutiny to justice.

The defense minister said he believes the soldiers' demands are political. He said the government will not tolerate or accept that mutinous members of the military do such things as arrest civil authority officials who, he said, have been named by a government that was freely and democratically elected.

Niger military sources say the army is preparing to send hundreds of troops to the southeast of the country.

Meanwhile, Diffa remains under a nighttime curfew imposed by the mutinous soldiers.

The curfew was announced on Wednesday when the soldiers took over a radio station in the town. During the takeover, they broadcast a statement outlining their demands. They also assured the population that their dispute was with the government and not with the citizens of the region.

Niger, which has a long history of military coups, has experienced a wave of violence recently in the north and east of the country. Government officials this week expressed concern over a growing wave of attacks on police and travelers in the northern Agadez region - the scene of a five-year revolt that ended in 1995.

Observers say this week's unrest has been the most serious since Niger returned to civilian rule two years ago following the last military coup, which occurred in 1999.