Niger Tuareg rebels threaten Areva's uranium mines

NIAMEY, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Tuareg-led rebels in Niger accused French uranium miner Areva


on Monday of financing a government offensive and warned of "grave consequences" for its staff and installations.

The French government-controlled company has been caught in the middle of a rebellion launched in February by nomadic tribesmen in the Saharan north of Niger where it mines uranium.

Areva was not immediately available for comment on Monday.

In July Niger's government barred the head of Areva's operations in Niger from the country, accusing the company of backing rebels. French President Nicolas Sarkozy intervened to calm the dispute and shortly afterwards Areva made an advance payment of more than $30 million to the Niger government.

But in a posting on its Web site on Monday, the rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) accused Areva of helping fund the government's war effort and of failing to hire enough local people from the desert regions where it operates.

"We inform Areva that from now on all its operations are regarded as illegal," the group said, adding that Areva "is exposing its staff as well as its installations to grave consequences."

It said that by continuing to sign deals with the Niger government, Areva was contributing financial means which "contribute to the war effort".

President Mamadou Tandja's government refuses to recognise the MNJ, whose fighters it dismisses as drug traffickers and highway bandits.

The revolt, demanding more regional autonomy and a greater share in benefits from mining in the area, echoes a 1990s uprising by Tuareg and other light-skinned nomadic peoples of the Sahara against the black African-controlled government in the south.

Rebel attacks, often ambushes involving land mines, have killed more than 45 government soldiers since February.