More civilians executed in Niger’s war on Tuaregs?

Niger’s army reports soldiers shot dead seven Tuareg civilians “by accident” in a fire-fight with rebels from the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) in the Tiguidit region, some 80 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital Agadez. Officials say the civilians were shot when their four Toyota pickups strayed onto the battlefield. Two of those killed were well-known Tuareg traders, Sidi Amar and Ousmane Sidi. “This accident has deeply affected the army which has in its ranks a member of the family of one of those killed,” read the Defense Ministry’s Dec. 10 statement, claiming residents had been warned of military operations in the area.

Official sources say the MNJ has killed at least 49 soldiers, mainly with land mines, since taking up arms 10 months ago. In the first sign of an urban front in the guerilla struggle, one civilian was killed and two wounded Dec. 10 when their truck hit a landmine in the town of Maradi in central Niger. That same day, one civilian was killed and one wounded in a land mine incident in Tahoua, also in central Niger. The incidents come days after President Mamdou Tandja warned the MNJ was plotting acts of “urban terrorism.” Moktar Roman, MNJ representative based in Belgium, denied the group was behind the blasts. “There is no element of the MNJ that would target civilians,” he said. “The army did this to turn public opinion in their favor.” (Reuters, IRIN, Dec. 11)

WW4 REPORT sources in the MNJ refute the government’s version of the Tiguidit killings. They report the seven people were all Arabs, not Tuareg, and of Algerian and Libyan citizenship. Some were among a group of wealthy entrepreneurs who had built a local water bottling plant. They had requested security guarantees from the Agadez governor, and received assurances that they would not be harmed by the military. Nonetheless, they were “intercepted while traveling and executed, and buried in a ditch.” The victims were also reportedly robbed of large sums of money. They were not politically involved, but had good relations with the local Tuareg authorities, with whom they worked on irrigation and agricultural projects. No MNJ forces were in the area of the attack.

MNJ sources say there have been protests in the Arab community of Agadez over the killings. Tandja’s offensive has failed to impose control of the desert, but he warns “western populations” that any contact with or support of the MNJ will be severely punished.

See our last posts on the Tuareg, and the struggle in the Sahel.