NIAMEY Feb 24 Niger's President Mamadou Tandja extended a state of alert in the desert north, home to some of the world's largest uranium reserves, where security forces have been battling an uprising led by Tuareg nomads.
The announcement prolonged for a further three months from Sunday extra powers of arrest first given to the security forces in August in the region around the northern town of Agadez.
The rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) has killed at least 50 soldiers and taken dozens hostage since launching a revolt a year ago to demand more autonomy and a greater share of mining revenues.
The unrest has threatened to disrupt activities by firms including French nuclear group Areva CEPFi.PA, whose uranium production in Niger has fuelled France's nuclear industry for decades, and Sino-U, a unit of China's state-run nuclear firm which is preparing to start production in Niger.
"By a presidential decree, the state of alert in the region of Agadez has been extended by three months from February 24, 2008," said an official statement issued late on Saturday.
The emergency power were already extended once, in November.
The MNJ has threatened to disrupt uranium mining in the north until local people benefit from the industry.
In mid-February, the rebels accused France of giving military support and equipment to Tandja's army. This was strongly denied by authorities in Paris.
Tandja's government refuses to recognise and negotiate with the rebels, describing them as armed bandits. In a statement on Friday, it demanded that they lay down their weapons.
Tandja's government had initially accused Areva of backing the rebels in order to dissuade competitors from entering the sector, but relations have warmed since the French company renegotiated its mining contract in January. (Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi; Writing by Daniel Flynn, editing by Mary Gabriel)