- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2007

KANO, Nigeria — Niger's government is struggling to control information about a nascent rebellion in its northern desert — suspending local press accused of backing the fighters and banning foreign reporters from the area. The rebels, though, have a Web site and satellite phones.

The Niger Movement for Justice started a campaign against the government early this year. They charge that the administration has reneged on promises of greater rights for members of the ethnic Tuareg minority — pledges that were key to a 1995 peace accord that ended a previous rebellion.

The rebels’ complaints increasingly have been accompanied by violence in the West African country. In June, the group attacked the airport in the northern city of Agadez and overran an army base in an assault that left 13 soldiers dead. The rebels also briefly held a Chinese uranium company executive and continue to hold dozens of hostages from the army base.

The government said three more soldiers were killed by a rebel-planted mine last week. A statement on the rebels’ Web site said there was a confrontation but that it was an exchange of gunfire in which five soldiers died.

Local press has reported that 4,000 government troops have been sent up to the north. Government communications officials said they could not confirm the number of soldiers dispatched for security reasons.

The gravity of the situation is not clear. An Associated Press reporter inquiring last week about traveling to the northern region of Agadez, where the rebels have bases, was told by Communications Ministry officials that foreign reporters were banned from the area.

Broadcasts of Radio France International were banned last week for one month throughout the country because the Niger government said the FM station was promoting the rebels’ cause.

Earlier this month, four weeklies in the capital, Niamey, received formal government warnings for reprinting rebel dispatches from the Web site, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Air Info, the major independent newspaper in the city of Agadez, was suspended in late June.

Still, the rebel group of just about 1,000 fighters has managed to get word out about its cause through the Internet and spokesmen in Brussels and Paris. And rebel leader Aghali Alambo conducts interviews with journalists via satellite phone.

The government has said it will not negotiate with the group — known by its French abbreviation MNJ — calling it a collection of bandits and drug traffickers who want free reign to conduct criminal activity in the north.

Continuing unrest in the north could affect large uranium mining operations in the area. Niger is one of the world’s largest exporters of the material.

There are concerns that the simmering conflict is part of a larger pattern of instability across the desert region dominated by the Tuaregs.

Last year, Tuaregs in the neighboring country of Mali briefly took over the desert town of Kidal.

The previous Tuareg rebellion broke out in 1990, and ended only with a 1995 peace accord that promised a degree of autonomy as well as integration in the country’s armed forces and government.