By Abdoulaye Massalatchi
NIAMEY, July 5 (Reuters) - Rebels in Niger's remote north attacked the compound of an electricity company that powers the area's towns and uranium mines, but government troops fought them off, rebel and military sources said on Thursday.
Northern rebels have made a series of attacks on government and mining interests in the impoverished West African state, killing 15 government soldiers and abducting over 70 more a fortnight ago in their worst raid yet.
Some 30 wounded soldiers were later released.
In the latest attack, late on Wednesday, the rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) said its fighters attacked a compound of state-controlled coal mining and power company SONICHAR, which powers Niger's two uranium firms, both part French-owned.
A statement on its website (m-n-j.blogspot.com/) said the rebel fighters spent several hours at the compound, although a gendarme (paramilitary police) officer said government troops forced them to leave after half an hour.
"Some of them are probably wounded, as the soldiers found traces of blood," said the officer, who declined to be named.
Both sides said they had not lost any men in the fighting at the compound at Tchirozerine, about 35 km (22 miles) northwest of the main northern city Agadez.
Northern Niger has seen sporadic unrest since a rebellion in the 1990s by light-skinned Tuaregs and other nomadic tribes against the black African-led government based in the south.
As well as uranium, the area's iron ore, silver, platinum and titanium have attracted foreign mining firms as minerals prices have risen. But Niger remains one of the poorest nations on earth, ranking bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index.
The MNJ says it launched its campaign in retaliation for arbitrary arrests and killings of civilians in the north of Niger, where it says 253 civilians have disappeared after a wave of detentions by government forces.
President Mamadou Tandja's government refuses to recognise the MNJ, branding its members bandits and drug traffickers.
The government has declined to comment on an MNJ report that Tandja's administration has bought two Russian-made MI-24 attack helicopters and hired Ukrainian pilots to attack MNJ positions in the inhospitable Air region north of Agadez.
A Defence Ministry official hung up when Reuters telephoned to seek comment.
"What I can say is that some military officers went to Russia in May, but I can't confirm that it was to buy arms and helicopters. If we have such equipment, certainly the highlands of Air will not be an insurmountable obstacle for us," said one senior government military officer who declined to be named.
He also said government forces had "neutralised" around 10 armed men travelling on a four-wheel drive vehicle on Wednesday near Niger's northern border with Algeria.
MNJ spokesman Seydou Kaocen Maiga told Reuters by telephone from Paris that the group killed in that incident were in fact civilian traders involved in cross-border commerce.
Desert traders plying ancient caravan routes across the Sahara commonly carry guns including assault rifles as defence against armed bandits, blurring the line between civilians and legitimate military targets.
(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Dakar)