NIAMEY The main Tuareg rebel group in Niger has ousted its leader, Aghaly ag Alambo, the Niger Justice Movement (MNJ) said on its website, raising questions over efforts to broker peace in the country's lawless north.
The MNJ has waged a low-level insurgency in the north of the uranium-exporting nation since 2007 but Libya has brokered a peace pledge from the rebels and the government, prompting local officials to predict the conflict will be over by end-2009.
"The fighters, officers and political officials in the MNJ have decided and declare that (Alambo) is no longer the president of the MNJ," the group said in a statement dated August 31 and posted on its website www.m-n-j.blogspot.com.
It was not immediately clear how many fighters in the MNJ remain loyal to Alambo or what impact his sacking would have on Libyan-brokered talks. There have been previous splits in the movement leading to two other nomadic Tuareg rebel factions.
The statement accused Alambo of "tricking" the group and the countries working to end the conflict between the MNJ and the government. The group would be led by current chief-of-staff Amoumoune Kalakouwa until a new leader is chosen, it added.
The conflict is similar to previous rebellions in the 1960s and 1990s but the Tuareg are now focussing on securing a greater share of revenues from uranium mining by firms like France's Areva, which operates in the remote north.
Areva is currently developing a 1.2 billion euro mine at Imouraren, which is expected to become the biggest uranium mine in Africa and should produce 5,000 tonnes per year for 35 years.
Some 300 rebels and 80 soldiers have been killed in cat-and-mouse fighting that has displaced 20,000 people.
Having initially refused to negotiate with the Tuareg rebels, accusing them of being drug dealers and gun-runners, the government in Niamey agreed to Libyan-brokered talks in April and much of the violence has eased since then.
But the MNJ's ousting of its leader raised questions over agreements made during these talks, days after the governor of Agadez, the region that has seen most of the violence, predicted that the conflict would be over by the end of the year.
"The MNJ informs the Libyan authorities and those in power in Niamey that the group is not bound by the decisions, agreements and promises made by Alambo," it said.
However, the group said it remained open to the Libyan-brokered talks, so long as Niger's government agreed to conditions, which include the declaration of a truce, freeing prisoners, lifting a state of emergency in the north and formal negotiations.