The United Nations has imposed tighter restrictions on staff movements in northern Niger, days after Niger's Interior Minister Albade Abouba dismissed suggestions that a Tuareg rebellion had restarted after 10 years of calm.
In a document dated June 7, the UN security department UNSECOORD said it had become more concerned about security in the area around Agadez, an oasis town which lies on the main trans-Sahara road to Algeria, 800 km northeast of the capital Niamey.
It therefore upgraded the area to phase two, the second of five UN security levels. This requires all staff members and their families to remain at home unless otherwise instructed and precludes travel into or within the region unless it has been officially authorised as essential.
The move followed recent reports of attacks on commercial and passenger vehicles in northern Niger and the desertion of former Tuareg rebel fighters officers from the national army.
A declaration by some some former Tuareg rebels that they were planning to resume hostilities has raised fears in the region about a new rebellion in the desert north of Niger, where France, Spain and Japan operate a a strategically important uranium mine near the town of Arlit.
On Saturday night, a group of unidentified men with weapons attacked a bus full of people travelling north from Agadez to Arlit, injuring two passengers and robbing others of their possessions.
"After laying an ambush, the men machine-gunned the bus to force the driver to stop," a military source told IRIN.
The source said that during the same night, another group of armed men had held up a tanker truck carrying cooking oil as it was travelling north from Zinder to Agadez.
A rebellion by Tuaregs, a nomadic people spread across several countries in the Sahara desert, engulfed northern Niger between 1991 and 1995. The rebels demanded the establishment of a federal system that would let them run their own affairs in the mineral-rich north and east.
The government said 150 people were killed in skirmishes during the rebellion which led to the displacement of several thousand people.
Algeria, Burkina Faso and France brokered a peace agreement in 1995, which provided for the disarmament of the rebels and the integration of many of them into the army.
However, some Touaregs accuse President Mamadou Tandja of failing to respect the terms of the deal.
The first sign of trouble came in February when former Tuareg rebel leader Rhissa Ag Boula was sacked as tourism minister. A few days later, he was arrested in connection with the murder of an official of Niger's ruling party in Agadez.
Ag Boula has denied any involvement in the killing.
Last Tuesday, Niger's private weekly 'L'Evenement' published a communiqué dated 26 April from "a group of combatants of the resistance", announcing the reconstitution of the FLAA, Ag Boula's former rebel movement, at the end of April.
The statement called on "all combatants to join us in starting an armed rebellion."
The FLAA, the Liberation Front of the Air and Azawagh, was one of the most organised and radical of about a dozen Tuareg rebel groups active in northern Niger during the 1990s.
However it handed over its weapons to the army in September 2000 and was formally disbanded.
Local media reported in late May that groups of ex-Tuareg rebels who had been reintegrated into Niger's Saharan Security Units following the 1995 peace deal, had deserted and were thought to be regrouping in the Air mountains, their former stronghold north of Agadez.
Residents in Agadez said their absence had been noted. "You do not see all the guys that used to hang around town with their weapons anymore," one resident in the town told IRIN by telephone.
Interior Minister Abouba dismissed reports that their had been mass desertions from the army by former Tuareg rebels.
"We registered the absence of five soldiers in two military barracks in the north of the country," he told reporters. "But until the contrary has been proved, they are not linked to any desertion."
Even after the Tuareg rebellion formally ended in 1995, banditry remained a serious problem in northern Niger until 2000, forcing traffic on the Trans-Sahara highway to travel in convoys protected by heavily armed soldiers.
Niger, a mainly desert country of 11 million people, along with Mauritania, Chad and Mali is part of the U.S. programme known as the Pan-Sahel Initiative, which provides anti-terrorism training to the region's military.
The United States has provided the four countries with specialist weapons and vehicles and has sent teams of marine commandos to train their security forces to hunt down armed gangs in the desert.
Diplomats say Washington's particular target is the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat which kidnapped 17 European tourists in southern Algeria and eventually released them in Algeria and Mali last year following reports that a ransom had been paid.
The shadowy group is reported to have links with Al-Qaeda. During recent months its members have been detected in the desert north of Mali, Niger and Chad.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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