25 June 2007

Niger: ICRC Sends Teams After Armed Group Attacks Army Base

Niamey — Following an attack by Touareg rebels on an army base near Niger's northern city of Agadez on 22 June, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has sent two teams, one to provide emergency medical services to the wounded and the other to act as an intermediary.

The rebels claimed they killed 15 government soldiers, wounded 43 and took 72 others prisoner.

"We will not act as negotiators" said ICRC spokeswoman Anna Schaaf, responding to a question from IRIN on whether the delegation would try to help secure the release of the soldiers.

"The two sides have asked us to assist on the basis that we would remain strictly neutral," she said. "All we will do is 'transmit' [between the government and the rebels], whether that means transmit information or transmit people."

...the government continues to deny the existence of the rebels, calling the group armed bandits.

The rebel Nigerien Movement for Justice (MNJ) accuses the government of neglect and discrimination against the Touareg people. Aghaly ag Alambo, an MNJ leader, said the latest attack and a previous one on the airport in Agadez on 17 June were carried out in retaliation for the alleged killing of three elderly Touareg civilians by Nigerien soldiers.

Meanwhile the government continues to deny the existence of the rebels, calling the group armed bandits. Niger's Conseiller Superior de la Communication, an independent regulatory body for the media, summoned journalists to a meeting on Sunday to warn them against focusing on the attacks and thus encouraging further action by the MNJ.

The government and parliamentarians issued separate statements on the attacks, neither recognizing the movement as a rebellion. The government has not responded to IRIN's request for further information on whether it plans to acknowledge the group.

During an even bloodier Touareg rebellion in the 1990's, the Nigerien government also had a policy of denying the group's status as a rebel group. Baz Lecocq, an expert on Niger at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin Germany, told IRIN, "That continued up until to the point of negotiations. Even after negotiations the government mixed things up, acknowledging the legitimacy of the Touareg claims while calling their armed actions banditry."

At the time many among the rebels were calling for secession which, for the government, was unacceptable, Lecocq said. "The government was prepared to recognize the movement only once it reduced its demands to being treated more equitably within the state."

Peace agreements to end the conflict were signed in April 1995, supposedly ending the conflict.

The MNJ has not renewed demands for an independent state, according to information on its Web site, but rather the new attacks are a result of the government's failure to uphold the tenets of the 1995 agreement.

Lecocq said that the Nigerien government's strategy to call the new group bandits may be an automatic reaction. "They may simply be returning to their previous strategy because they can't think of anything better to do," he said.

For the ICRC, whether or not the government recognizes the rebels is immaterial. "Our mandate is strictly humanitarian," Schaaf said.

Emergency relief groups in the area say they are monitoring events closely but have no plans yet to withdraw.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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