Niger: Tuareg rebels seize UN envoy?

A Niger guerilla faction led by dissident Tuareg insurgent leader Rhissa Ag Boula announced Dec. 16 it had abducted Canadian UN special envoy Robert Fowler, who disappeared with an aide while driving some 30 miles northeast of the capital Niamey. The vehicle was found abandoned. In a posting on its website, Ag Boula’s Front of Forces for Rectification (FFR), which split from the Niger Justice Movement (MNJ) in May, said it was holding four people, including Fowler.

“On December 15, 2008, fighters of the Front des Forces de Redressement (FFR) carried out a commando operation in the Tillabery region in which we detained four people including a Canadian diplomat, Mr. Robert Fowler,” the FFR said in the posting on its website. The statement called the abduction a warning to “all diplomats who collaborate with the ethnic-killing regime of [Niger’s President] Mamadou Tandja.” It said Fowler was well and would be taken to a “safe place and handed to other collaborators who would take him in charge.” It set no terms for his release.

The MNJ said in a statement on its own website that it is ready to help the international community find Fowler. Since early last year, the MNJ has attacked Niger’s security forces, killing dozens of soldiers, and has also briefly abducted French and Chinese uranium company workers. It says it is fighting for greater autonomy for the northern Agadez region and a greater share of its wealth for the local people, mostly members of the Tuareg ethnic minority.

The Fowler abduction marked a rare attack by the rebels south of the Tuaregs’ Saharan homeland. The FFR statement promised further actions in Niger’s south. “We will deliver a heavy blow to the heart of the system. The Niger army cannot ensure security in this zone, any more than it can do in the northern zone,” it said. (Reuters, Dec. 16)

However, after the report appeared, an FFR spokesmandenied to Agence France-Presse that the group had been involved in Fowler’s abduction. A second posting on the group’s website likewise denied responsibility. Government sources said Fowler disappeared after visiting a gold mine in the Tillabery region. (NYT, Dec. 16)

In June, the MNJ seized four workers with Areva, the French nuclear company, which operates Niger’s two uranium mines. They were released unharmed after three days. Last year, the MNJ abducted a Chinese national working with a uranium company who was also released unharmed.

Areva, the world’s biggest nuclear group, won the right in January to open a new uranium mine at Imouraren, the country’s biggest mining project. China Nuclear International Uranium Corp is developing the Teguida uranium mine. The China National Petroleum Corporation also agreed in June to invest $5 billion to develop oil infrastructure, including plans for a pipeline to transport the crude for export and a 20,000 barrels-per-day refinery. (Financial Times, Dec. 15)

Meanwhile, the president of neighboring Mali, Amadou Toumani, called on Tuareg rebels operating in his own country’s northern deserts to lay down their arms and agree on a new peace deal. “I have been trained to make war, but I prefer peace,” the former army general said during a visit in northern Mali. “So if my brothers in the mountains can hear me, they should come down and make peace.”

Mali’s Tuareg guerillas remobilized recently, calling on the government to honor an agreement signed between the two sides in 2006. In the deal, rebels dropped their demand for autonomy for the Kidal region in exchange for the government commitment of development aid. (AFP, Dec. 14)

Mali’s government and Democratic Alliance for Change rebels reached a peace agreement in July after four days of talks in the Algerian capital. The Algiers talks followed the failure of a recent ceasefire mediated by the Gaddafi Foundation, a charitable organization chaired by Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi’s son Saif al-Islam. (Radio Australia, July 22)

See our last post on Niger, the Tuareg struggle and the Sahel.

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