June 17, 2007 / 10:39 PM / 10 years ago

Tuareg rebels in Niger raid Agadez airport

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Tuareg rebels in Niger carried out a hit-and-run attack on the airport of the Saharan town of Agadez on Sunday, but authorities said it caused no casualties or serious damage.

A group calling itself the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) claimed responsibility for the attack.

It was one of the boldest raids so far this year by the nomadic desert fighters, who complain of neglect and discrimination by the central government and who have attacked military posts and a uranium mine in the last few months.

Military officers and local officials said the raid targeted the airport at Agadez, 1,000 km (600 miles) north of the capital Niamey. The trading town is the gateway to Niger's remote desert region where foreign firms are exploring for uranium and oil.

Niger is the world's third largest uranium producer.

"A light vehicle came up on the side of the airport and shots came from it," Agadez governor Abba Malam Boukar told Radio France Internationale (RFI).

Local residents said they heard firing from automatic rifles and also from heavier weapons.

Boukar said there was no serious damage and a military source said no casualties were reported.

Agali Alambo, leader of the MNJ rebel group, told RFI his fighters had attacked the airport in reprisal for reconnaissance flights carried out by authorities from Agadez airport.

A week ago, officials banned travel between northern towns without military escort after a rise in attacks by the rebels.

FEARS

Fighters from numerous light-skinned ethnic Tuareg, Arab and Toubou groups staged an uprising in the 1990s in northern Niger demanding more autonomy from the black-dominated government.

Most groups accepted peace deals in 1995 but insecurity remains rife, with frequent acts of banditry, carjacking and kidnapping by people who say they are still marginalized.

The MNJ, which has demanded that income from natural resources be more fairly shared out, was blamed for an attack in April on a uranium mine operated by a subsidiary of French mining group AREVA. One soldier was killed.

Members of the group, which also claimed responsibility for killing three Niger soldiers in February, took part last month in a cross-border assault on a gendarmerie post in the Malian town of Tin-Za, deep in the Sahara near the Algerian border.

The attacks have raised fears of a resurgent rebellion.

Niger's government refuses to recognize the MNJ and denies talk of a new Tuareg rebellion, dismissing the fighters as bandits and drug-traffickers.

But it has been forced to send army reinforcements to the north and last month approved more than $60 million in extra budget funds to confront the attacks.

Despite its mineral riches, which besides uranium include iron ore, coal, copper, silver, platinum, titanium and lithium, Niger was listed bottom of a 2006 U.N. development index ranking countries by quality of life.

High levels of unemployment and a young population fuel resentment in the north, where trafficking cigarettes or smuggling migrants trying to get to Europe have become ways of earning money.

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