In Niger, rebels and government officials continue to trade accusations about an attack earlier this week that killed about a dozen people. Army officers say they killed rebel fighters, while human rights activists and Tuareg rebels say the army is targeting civilians.  Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

Rebels deny an army report that soldiers killed 19 Tuareg rebels while intercepting a drug-smuggling convoy on Monday near the Algerian border.

An army officer said Tuesday the army seized weapons and drugs in the northern Agadez region.

Rebel leaders say those killed were not part of the armed opposition.

Salvatore Sagues with the London-based human rights group Amnesty International says civilians are being targeted by government soldiers.

He says Amnesty has documented cases of people who have been arrested and held for weeks without having access to lawyers or being charged.

"It is very dangerous to give to security forces the right to detain and to maintain in detention without being brought before a judge for weeks, because there is always a risk of torture or ill treatment in order to extract confessions," he said.

Government officials dismiss this concern and say security forces are only arresting suspects when there is serious and consistent evidence against them.  Officials say they are dealing with suspects according to the law.

The government recently declared a state of alert in the northeast Agadez region where Tuareg rebels have been launching attacks on government convoys, planting landmines and taking government soldiers hostage over the past eight months.

Though government officials say they do not prevent reporting on the Tuareg rebellion, journalists are effectively prevented from traveling to the north, and cannot broadcast images of the fighting.

Officials have said, if necessary, they will extend the state of alert beyond the initial three months and then declare a state of emergency. 

Fighting in the Tuareg stronghold in the northeast of the country has killed at least 45 government soldiers and led to hostage taking and national army defections.  The Niger government has requested international intervention to secure the release of dozens of government soldiers still held in the rebels' northeast mountain base. 

The rebels are demanding to be integrated into the army, and they want a bigger share of profits from the uranium mines located in their northeastern desert area.  The government says it has fulfilled most of a 1995 peace deal with the Tuareg rebels.

The government refuses to negotiate with the fighters until they put down their arms, dismissing them as drug smugglers and bandits.