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We would not wish to trade places with Nick Tattersall, the Reuters wire serve reporter providing outsiders a glimpse of the chaos now unfolding in the Republic of Niger.

Nearly all of Niger’s journalists have been threatened or shut down. On Thursday, Niger’s High Council for Communication suspended Radio France International broadcasts for one month, accusing the French-owned FM radio station of sympathizing with the Tuareg rebels.

Earlier this week, the only newspaper in northern Niger’s Agadez – a key uranium mining city in northern Niger – was shut down for three months. The High Council accused the editor of ‘undermining the morale of troops’ Niger’s president had ordered to quell the Tuareg insurrection.

The council has also threatened closure of other media channels if they continue publishing pro-Tuareg commentary. As a result, the country’s media has stopped publishing communiqués
from the rebels.

The Tuareg rebels publish a daily blog (http://m-n-j.blogspot.com/ ), both expressing their grievances and alerting the media and others about developments in northern Niger. The Niamey-based government has banned all foreign journalists from visiting Agadez and the surrounding areas.

Niger’s Uranium Mining at Risk

One of the drivers behind the rebellion is uranium mining in Niger. Landmines have reportedly been planted in the Agadez region, northern Niger’s largest city. Agadez is mostly a mining community, built up by French-owned Areva (AVRCF.PK). Nearly nine percent of the world’s uranium has mined in this region in 2006.

In April, the Tuaregs attacked one of Areva’s uranium mines. Dominique Pin, head of Areva’s uranium mining in Niger, recently admitted, “The attack caused us to stop all our operations for almost a month.” Pin was recently forced to rebut claims that Areva had been financing the Tuareg ‘Movement of Niger People for Justice’ [MNJ]. The Areva executive expressed concerns about ‘security and stability in Niger.’

Nigerian president Mamadou Tandja recently sent about 4,000 soldiers to the northern region. But according to the MNJ website and other reports, many soldiers are defecting and siding with the Tuaregs.

On Wednesday, the rebel blog claimed a senior Nigerien officer had joined the rebels, bringing with him ‘tens of soldiers and a score of 4x4 vehicles.’ One report stated the rebel group’s numbers had ‘swelled to nearly 2,000.’ More than 8,500 former Tuareg rebels have been trained in army school or given civil servant jobs – after the Tuareg uprising in the 1990s.

On Thursday, the rebels taunted the Nigerien president accusing him of being afraid to leave his country – hinting of a possible coup in his absence. The story was headlined ‘Ostrich Policy,’ referring to the president’s refusal to negotiate peace talks with the rebels.

Earlier in the week, Tandja phoned Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi for help in tracking down the rebels. Desperately, Niger’s president has been beating the bushes among neighbors – Algeria, Chad, Mali and Nigeria – to help track down the rebels.

This is not an unusual appeal. In 2003, European tourists kidnapped by Algerian rebels were rescued by Chad rebels instead of highly sophisticated satellite tracking devices. Rebel groups, bandits and smugglers freely roam the inclement Sahara across country borders with little military or government intervention.

During the past week, amid the early signs of martial law being imposed in the country, Mining Minister Abdoul Razack boasted Niger would double uranium output within four years. He cited Areva’s massive Imouraren deposit and Sino-U’s much smaller Teguida as two upcoming mines to accomplish this giant increase.

According to TradeTech’s Uranium 2007, published in June, the Akouta could be mined out after 2010. If the rebels interfere with Areva’s current project, TradeTech suspects Imouraren will fail to produce any uranium until the 2013-2014 time frame. Both mines have been producing from sandstone deposits since the 1970s, according to International Atomic Energy Agency Red Book.

In early July, the rebels took the deputy general manager of Sino-U hostage, releasing him only after the Chinese uranium company abandoned its work at the Teguida project. The workers have not returned.

Areva’s Imouraren project could also suffer setbacks. It is noteworthy the Tuareg are distinguished in their native language as the ‘Imouhar,’ which means ‘the free people.’ Perhaps this play on words has angered the Berber ethnic group, whose population dominates northern Niger. The largest numbers of Tuaregs reportedly reside in Niger, although sizeable numbers can be found in Mali, and to a lesser extent in Libya, Algeria and Burkina Faso.

Animosity runs deep between the black-run Niamey government and the light-skinned Tuareg nomads. Once active in the slave trade, the Tuareg had enslaved the Hausa, the ethnic group comprising 54 percent of Niger’s population, mostly residing in the south. Slavery continued forcing the government to prohibit the practice in 2003.

Although the Chinese have been chased out of Agadez, temperatures run highest because of Areva’s fifty year history in Niger. The rebel complaint about China’s uranium exploration in Niger stemmed from the Niamey-based military using Chinese weapons to fight the rebels.

On the MNJ website, the Tuareg reported the land mines found in the ‘Air’ valleys of the region are ‘of Chinese manufacture.’

MNJ Targets Areva

After last year’s annual ‘Salt Cure,’ Boutali Tchiwerin, a spokesman for the Tuareg, issued written grievances in early October 2006 about Areva’s Imouraren project, also known as Afasto (or Efasto). His commentary was issued in response to Areva’s Environmental Impact Study being conducted on this deposit. One can immediately grasp the dissatisfaction which now stirs the rebel Berbers in this passage from the French-language document:

“Arlit city emerges from the desert, with its 84 000 inhabitants as a parasitic city of nourished evil, a kind of tent city in the desert where the indigenous people in the Boukoki quarter live even poorer in huts made out of cardboard or plastics - all that is rejected by the factories of the subsidiary companies of Areva is recovered by this population taken refuge in its own soil.

“Some practice gardening at the periphery of Arlit with greenish water and muddy mixes of human excrements, urines and waste water from hospitals without undergoing the least treatment. The exploitation of uranium by Areva and its subsidiaries has contributed to the impoverishment of the area by accelerating the phenomenon of turning the area into more of a desert by the plundering of the natural resources and the draining of the fossil deposits. It is undoubtedly an ecological catastrophe and a continuing human tragedy which threatens the existence of the one of oldest civilizations of this Sahara.”

But what is the nature of the grievance? Money, jobs and some respect. The proclamation points out that only 15 percent of the workmen are indigenous. Outside workers are instead brought in. Senior employees comprise three percent of the local population; middle management by five percent. The Tuareg residents are excluded as suppliers or subcontractors.

The Tuareg spokesman wrote that Areva ‘practices a systematic policy of discrimination, exclusion and marginalization.’

Areva’s power plant was also attacked. Ironically, electricity generation for Niger’s mines is provided by SONICHAR, the Nigerien coal mining company, and which came about after French geologists discovered the coal deposit in 1964. The coal which fuels the plant is a low-ranking brown coal with high ash content. Some of the rebel allegations claim the coal-burning contaminates the soil and water in the northern Agadez region.

Tchiwerin recommended that ‘an independent investigation be diligent to evaluate the environmental, social, economic and social impacts/damage perpetuated in the Agadez region by chameleon BRGM, ECA, Cogema and finally Areva today, since a half century.’ He complained that the ‘exploitation and plundering of the natural resources’ by the Areva group threatened the survival of the population.

And now the shoe is on the other foot.

While the Tuareg diet mainly consists of goat, dates and millet – rarely eating fresh vegetables, Europeans who visit enjoy the fruits and vegetables to which they are accustomed. The Niger military has banned the stockpiling of fuel, hoping to cut off fuel supplies to the Tuareg!
rebels. As a result, hotels and restaurants in the area are now suffering because farmers can’t get produce to market.

The recent uprising has put the tourist season, which runs October to March, into question. Agadez is a popular European destination in the autumn, but tour operators have cancelled all direct charter flights to this city until at least December. Aside from Areva’s uranium mining, the local economy depends upon tourists to survive.

Both industries are likely to suffer for the balance of 2007, and perhaps into next year. Without food and fuel, uranium mining and tourism could soon come to a standstill.

Swift Resolution Unlikely

Media censorship, military desertions and food shortages tend to destabilize a country rather than provide further security for business to thrive.

During the uranium drought, Niger was embroiled in chaos. Bitterness between the Tuareg Berbers and the Black African government has never been resolved despite free, multi-party elections in the late 1990s.

Since the Republic of Niger gained independence from France in 1960, the country has been embroiled in corruption, scandals and coups. The current president was elected after his predecessor Colonel Ibrahim Bare was assassinated. Bare had gained his presidency by overthrowing the previous government through a military coup. By rigging the elections he remained in power for three years. Tandja is presently serving the third year of his second five-year tenure in office.

In 2002, there was military unrest in several cities, including Niamey. Earlier this year, the country’s Prime Minister was forced out of office by the National Assembly’s vote of no confidence.

To add more confusion to this troubled, poverty-stricken country, international politics have arrived in the Sahara. According to the Guerrilla News Network, “The Sahel nations – Niger, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Algeria – have been absorbed into the global ‘war on terror’ and have all come under the U.S. counter-terrorism military umbrella.”

The Sahel nations represent a multi-country region at the southern fringe of the Sahara. The Sahel is grasslands, which the Tuareg use as grazing lands for their livestock. Creeping desertification is slowing wiping out the grasslands and is forcing the Tuareg to alter their nomadic lifestyle.

According to a recent Economist magazine (June 14th edition) article, U.S. Special Forces teams have trained Tuaregs in the Sahel region as part of the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Some U.S. military experts believe there is al-Qaeda in northwest Africa, also known as the Maghreb. We can not rule out some of the Tuareg rebels have undergone commando training. It has been widely reported the Niamey-based government has enjoyed U.S. military assistance.

Some reports suggest the U.S. counter-terrorism strategy has come at a bad time for Niger. Embroiled with a decade-long unresolved internal strife (and after forty years of bitterness, resentment and upheaval), the country may yet face another battle between north and south.

In Niger, this is neither new nor unusual. Should this materialize, Niger’s uranium mining could come to a standstill. Unlike mining-friendly countries in southern Africa, such as Namibia and South Africa, the northern half of the country now suggests a high level of political risk.

Source: Tuareg Rebels Threaten Uranium Mining in Niger