Landmine kills four soldiers in northern Niger
NIAMEY, July 31 (Reuters) - Four soldiers were killed in Niger on Tuesday when their vehicle hit a landmine while escorting a civilian convoy through a zone where Tuareg-led rebels operate, the government said.
The blast brings to at least 40 the number of soldiers killed since the rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) launched an insurgency in February to demand greater autonomy for the vast region around the ancient Saharan caravan town of Agadez.
The vehicle hit the mine between Agadez and Dirkou while the troops were escorting trucks carrying provisions for the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which is exploring for oil in Niger's desert north.
Two soldiers and three civilians were wounded by the mine, government officials said.
"Despite these distressing ordeals, the state will continue to use all necessary means to guarantee the security of the population and of our foreign partners," the interior ministry said in a statement.
The MNJ, dismissed by the government as common bandits, has captured dozens of soldiers and attacked mining interests in the region, which holds some of the world's biggest uranium reserves and where oil prospecting is under way.
Earlier this month the MNJ kidnapped an executive from the Chinese uranium firm Sino-U, which it accused of helping the government to buy arms. He was later released unharmed.
Some firms have said their suppliers are wondering whether it is safe to continue operating in the mineral-rich region.
The light-skinned Tuaregs, famed for their blue turbans, rebelled in the 1990s demanding more autonomy from the black African-dominated government after a brutal clampdown by the security forces in which scores of civilians were killed.
Most rebel groups signed a peace deal in 1995 but the MNJ, which says it has nearly 2,000 fighters, maintains the peace accords have not been fully respected and the north remains marginalised.
The government says the vast majority of Tuareg demands from the 1990s, including the integration of former fighters and more political power for local leaders, have been met.
Von: Abdoulaye Massalatchi, www.alertnet.org