Rebels in northern Niger have dismissed a government decision to impose a state of alert in the region.  Niger's president issued a statement Friday declaring the alert, which gives government forces additional powers in their fight against ethnic Tuareg rebels in the uranium-rich north.  Phuong Tran brings us more from VOA's West African Bureau in Dakar.

The state of alert by President Mamadou Tandja gives security forces greater powers of arrest and also enables them to detain suspects without charge well beyond the usual 48 hours.

But El Kontchi Kriska, a spokesman for the Tuareg rebel group, the Niger Movement for Justice (NMJ), says the threat of more arrests cannot deter the group.

"I do not think the decision of this government will discourage the determination of our front. We do not care about this declaration," he said.

Kriska dismisses the alert as a desperate move by an overwhelmed government. So far this year, more than 40 government soldiers have died in rebel attacks.  On Tuesday, NMJ rebels said they killed 17 soldiers when they engaged a heavily armed military convoy.

The army on Friday denied that version of events, saying it had killed seven NMJ fighters in the clash and that only one of its soldiers had been killed and seven injured.

Analyst Richard Reeves with the London-based Chatham House says the government is fighting back with more arrests because it cannot gain a military victory against the rebels.

"Niger does not have the manpower or firepower to win this militarily," he noted.  "The solution to the previous conflict has been to almost withdraw from the area, and sort of garrison small areas and let the Tuaregs get on with things."

The rebellion by Tuareg tribesmen dates back to the 1990s, when they began demanding greater autonomy from the government.  The NMJ says a1995 peace deal that ended that insurgency has never been fully implemented and that the region remains economically and politically marginalized.

The government refuses to recognize the NMJ, saying the group is made up of bandits and drug traffickers.  It also says the vast majority of Tuareg demands from the 1990s have been met. 

Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, but the northern region, where the Tuareg live, has some of the world's largest reserves of uranium.