October 2, 2007 / 5:07 PM / 11 years ago

Niger says bandits slain, rebels say civilians shot

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Niger’s army said on Tuesday it had killed 19 Tuareg "bandits" when it intercepted a drug-smuggling convoy near the border with Algeria, but a Tuareg rebel Web site accused soldiers of killing 12 unarmed civilians.

Army officers said the clash took place on Monday east of Assamakka in the Toussasset area of the northern Agadez region, where authorities have declared a state of alert since late August to counter a rebellion by light-skinned Tuareg fighters.

The Tuareg-led rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), which the government dismisses as drug-trafficking bandits, launched an uprising in the uranium-mining north of the impoverished Sahel country in February. Since then, it has killed at least 45 government soldiers and taken dozens more captive.

"Our forces on patrol came across armed MNJ bandits travelling in several heavily armed vehicles and in the clashes, 19 bandits were killed and two of their vehicles knocked out," one army officer, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

"We seized arms and drugs," the officer added.

On its Web site, www.m-n-j.blogspot.com, the MNJ accused the army of "massacring" 12 Tuareg civilians on the Algerian frontier, although it did not specify the exact location.

The group said army soldiers halted five passenger vehicles, ordered their occupants out, separated light-skinned Tuaregs from darker-skinned passengers and then killed the former.

There was no independent confirmation of the incidents reported by the army and the MNJ.

Niger’s authorities have imposed a media blackout on coverage of the northern unrest and have tried to prevent reporters from travelling to the Agadez region.

The MNJ, which announced last month it was halting offensive operations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, says it wants the northern Tuareg region to have greater autonomy from Niger’s black-dominated government ruling far to the south.

The group is also demanding the region be given a greater share of the mineral wealth it produces.

Last month, Amnesty International accused Niger’s security forces of arbitrarily arresting and torturing civilians under the state of alert in the Agadez region.

The government denied the charges as unfounded and accused the London-based human rights organisation of "disinformation" and "manipulation".

The MNJ uprising echoes more widespread rebellions in Niger and neighbouring Mali in the 1990s by desert nomads. The area remains awash with guns and armed banditry is common.

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