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Niger army kills 17 rebels

Published: 12:26PM Saturday June 28, 2008 Source: Reuters

Niger said its armed forces killed 17 members of a Tuareg-led rebel group in an operation that recaptured a northern position seized by the desert insurgents a year ago.

The operation announced by the defence ministry followed the release by the rebel Niger Justice Movement (MNJ) on Wednesday of four French hostages it abducted on Sunday in the northern uranium-producing Agadez region of the West African country.

The MNJ, which is demanding greater autonomy for the region and a bigger share of its mineral wealth for local people, said it had abducted the four employees of the French nuclear group Areva to disprove the Niger government's assurances that it could protect foreign mining and oil investments.

Niger's defence ministry said the armed forces on Friday recaptured Tazerzait, at the foot of Mount Tamgak in the Agadez region, a position which MNJ fighters had captured on June 22 last year in an attack that killed 15 army soldiers.

"Seventeen MNJ members were killed ... the army destroyed three vehicles and recovered four others," the ministry said in its statement, adding that government forces suffered no losses.

There was no independent confirmation of the recapture of Tazerzait by the government.

The MNJ did not immediately react to the defence ministry announcement. But it said earlier this week that the Niger army was trying to bombard its mountain bases in the north using newly acquired helicopter gunships.

The rebel movement has taken hostage dozens of Niger army soldiers during more than a year of inconclusive on-off fighting that has killed at least 200 rebels and 70 government troops.  President Mamadou Tandja's government, which dismisses the MNJ rebels as bandits and smugglers of arms and drugs, has ruled out any negotiations unless they first lay down their arms.

The four French hostages abducted and then released were employed at Areva's Cominak mine at Arlit in northern Niger.

Encouraged by rising world prices for uranium, the radioactive fuel for nuclear reactors, Niger hopes to become the world's no. 2 uranium producer by 2011, thanks to new mines being opened by France's Areva and the China Nuclear International Uranium Corp. (Sino-U).

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