Niger insecurity hits uranium prospecting -minister

NIAMEY, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Insecurity in northern Niger, where Tuareg rebels are fighting government forces, is stifling investment in the vast desert nation’s mining industry, the mines minister said.

Niger is already one of the world’s top uranium producers and has handed out 127 mining exploration permits over the last three years to attract more investment into the impoverished Saharan nation.

But the Tuareg rebels, nomads calling for autonomy and a greater share of uranium revenues, launched a rebellion in the remote north nearly two years ago. Since then more than 300 rebels and some 80 government soldiers have been killed in the violence.

Mohamed Abdoulahi, the minister for mines and energy, told parliament late on Thursday that mining companies had applied for 130 new permits.

“There has been a slow down in the distribution of permits and just 10 percent of the permits already issued have seen research work begin due to the conditions we are seeing in the zones they are in,” Abdoulahi added.

Abdoulahi said the lack of trained local personnel in the sector was also holding back the industry.

French nuclear energy group Areva CEPFi.PA said earlier this month it had won a licence to operate the major Imouraren mine, which would more than double Niger's uranium output and make it the second largest producer in the world.

China Nuclear International Uranium Corp is developing a mine in Niger while Cameco Corp CCO.TO, the world's top uranium producer, announced last year it was taking a stake in GoviEx, a company that has exploration rights in Niger.

Interest in uranium for nuclear power generation has increased in recent years due to high oil prices and concerns about global warming.

Niger is also due to start producing oil next year.

The government has refused to negotiate with the rebels, accusing them of being bandits and drug traffickers.

The Tuareg rebellion, which has split into several factions, stems from complaints that the nomads have been marginalised by successive governments. The main Tuareg group, the Niger Justice Movement (MNJ), has threatened to target the northern mines.

Diplomats say the region is home to a mix of rebels, traffickers and Islamist groups and there are fears that armed groups are taking advantage of the lawlessness to strike deals with an organisation called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Niger believes that Islamists might be holding a Canadian United Nations envoy and his aide who were kidnapped in the country late last year.

Diplomats fear that four Westerners seized near the Mali-Niger border last week may have been handed to al Qaeda. [ID:nLT774538] (Writing by David Lewis; editing by Anthony Barker)