FEATURE-Desert rebellion buffets north Niger's economy (Niger)
Vittorio Gioni should be readying his hotels and restaurants for an influx of Europeans seeking adventure in the Sahara when the tourist season starts in October. Instead, after more than 35 years in northern Niger's remote oasis town of Iferouane, the 69-year-old has put most of his staff on indefinite leave and returned to the capital Niamey, more than 1,000 km (620 miles) away in the south. An uprising led by nomadic Tuareg rebels, who have raided army posts and mining targets in a five-month-old campaign against the government, has turned northern Niger into a military zone.
Checkpoints stop civilians travelling outside the main northern town of Agadez after late afternoon and those who take the road by day do so at their own risk. Foreign journalists are banned from the region.
Three people were badly injured a few days ago when their truck drove over a landmine between Agadez and Iferouane, gateway to the spectacular Air Massif mountains in the heart of rebel territory.
"The word 'mine' is the death sentence for tourism in the Agadez region," said Gioni, who used to run a travel agency and owns hotels and restaurants in Agadez, Iferouane and Niamey.
Agadez was one of the first non-capital cities in sub-Saharan West Africa to receive direct charter flights from Europe, making desert tourism a pillar of the local economy.
French, Germans and Italians came to visit its 16th century mud-brick mosque and sleep under the stars among the rolling dunes of the Tenere desert, or venture into volcanic mountains rising 2,000 metres from the desert floor.
Such is the importance of the October-March tourist season that some Agadez residents buy food on credit during the rest of the year, confident of being able to pay back their dues once the visitors return.
This year, charter flights have been cancelled until December as tour operators wait to see if the insurgency will end.
Northern Niger has seen conflict before. The light-skinned Tuaregs rebelled against a black African-dominated government in the 1990s but tourism recovered after a peace deal in 1995.
The rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) says the region, which contains some of the world's largest uranium deposits, is marginalised, and it demands greater control of its resources.
The government dismisses the group, which has killed 33 soldiers and taken dozens hostage since February, as bandits and has ruled out negotiations.
But northerners -- Tuareg, Toubou and Arab nomads as well as Hausa and Djerma pastoralists -- are growing impatient as the military stand-off threatens what is already a fragile existence in one of the most inhospitable regions on earth.
Amoumen Azori, head of Agadez's union of fruit and vegetable cooperatives, said the army had banned stockpiling fuel in case it was stolen by rebels, making it difficult to get produce to market and threatening the livelihoods of some 150,000 people.
"Even if we produce, we can't get the buyers to come," he said. "Farmers on the outskirts of towns are leaving their plots and taking shelter because they're afraid of the situation."
The region's heavy industry has also been hit by the unrest.
French nuclear giant Areva, which employs 1,800 mostly locals in Niger, had one of its uranium mines attacked by rebels in April while an executive from China Nuclear International Uranium Corp. was kidnapped this month by the MNJ.
"The attack caused us to stop all our operations for almost a month," said Dominique Pin, Areva's director in Niger. "Some of our suppliers are asking themselves about the security situation, so it is having an impact on economic activity."
Officials hope the economic squeeze will make local traditional leaders persuade the rebels to end their campaign.
National television showed what it said were 60 MNJ fighters, wearing turbans and brandishing rocket launchers, giving themselves up to the local authorities on Tuesday.
The MNJ's Paris-based spokesman, Seydou Kaocen Maiga, said only five fighters had turned themselves in and the rest were actors. He said army desertions had swelled the rebel ranks to almost 2,000 men.
Vittorio Gioni had hoped to celebrate his 70th birthday in his beloved Iferouane in September.
"I am sure I would have lived a longer life in tranquility in Iferouane," he said. "The air you breathe, the landscape, it is a good medicine. Now all that has been wrecked," he said.
Von: Nick Tattersall for Reuters