Tuareg rebels in northern Niger killed 15 government soldiers in an attack on a Saharan military outpost on Friday, one of their biggest raids yet in a region where foreign firms are exploring for uranium and oil.
The rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) said it had attacked two army companies in a raid on Tazerzait, a remote settlement around a well near the Algerian and Malian borders, killing 15 soldiers, injuring 43 and taking 72 prisoners.
"The MNJ has just carried out a major offensive around Tazerzait to respond to the crimes committed by the Niger Armed Forces in northern Niger," the group said on its Website (http://m-n-j.blogspot.com/).
It said government forces -- which it sarcastically dubs the "Tandjaouide militia" after President Mamadou Tandja and the pro-government Janjaweed fighters in Sudan's Darfur region -- had killed innocent civilians in a crackdown in the north.
A military officer who asked not to be named confirmed to Reuters that 15 government soldiers had been killed. It was not immediately possible to verify the rebel claims of the wounded and captured.
The MNJ has stepped up attacks in the north of Niger, one of the world's top five uranium producers. Its fighters complain of neglect and discrimination by a government more than 1,000 km (620 miles) away in the capital Niamey.
Last Sunday, the group raided the airport of Agadez -- the northern region's main town popular with tourists -- in a bid to destroy military surveillance planes. It was blamed for a raid in April on a French-run uranium mine.
Hotbed Of Dissent
Despite its mineral riches, which besides uranium include iron ore, coal, copper, silver, platinum, titanium and lithium, Niger was listed bottom of a 2006 UN development index ranking countries by quality of life.
The desert north has long been a hotbed of dissent, awash with arms left over from previous desert rebellions and full of disillusioned, unemployed youths.
Fighters from numerous light-skinned ethnic Tuareg, Arab and Toubou nomadic groups staged an uprising in the 1990s demanding more autonomy from the black-dominated government.
Most groups accepted peace deals in 1995 but insecurity remains rife, with frequent acts of carjacking and kidnapping. Earlier this month officials banned travel between northern towns without military escorts because of the insecurity.
MNJ leader Aghaly ag Alambo has said the attacks on military targets are a reprisal for the killing of three Tuareg elders by government soldiers this month. The army has said it does not kill innocent civilians.
President Tandja's government denies there is a resurgent rebellion in the north, refusing to recognise the MNJ and dismissing the raiders as bandits and drug traffickers.
"This situation does not derive from any attempt to question the agreemnts which brought peace to Niger," Tandja told civil servants at a conference in Niamey on Wednesday.
"In reality it is a case of acts of banditry meant to conceal illegal activities by a group of arms and drugs smugglers which we will firmly fight," he said.