Niger has sent its security chief to Libya to try to mediate an end to a rebellion in the country’s uranium-rich north, marking a softening of the government’s stance.
Reuters says Niger’s government has previously refused to recognise the Tuareg rebels, who took up arms in early 2007 demanding greater autonomy but have since split into numerous factions. It labels the fighters as bandits and smugglers.
“The government delegation will meet the mediator and seek details on the issues raised by the rebels,” said a Niger government source, who asked not to be named.
“At this stage, I cannot confirm that there will be a final peace deal.”
Tuaregs live a nomadic life following their herds deep into the Sahara and often crossing back and forth over the colonial-era borders that divide Libya, Niger, Mali and Algeria.
Tuareg fighters launched uprisings in the Sahara in the 1960s and 1990s, and renewed rebellions since early 2007 against the central governments of Niger and Mali have increased instability in a region where al Qaeda cells also operate.
Fighting in Niger’s rebellion, instigated by the Niger Justice Movement (MNJ), has killed more than 300 rebels and around 80 government soldiers.
The MNJ says it is fighting for equality with black Africans in the south of the country, more political autonomy and a greater say in the use of mineral resources from the north, which has a booming uranium mining industry.
President Mamdou Tanja’s government has repeatedly dismissed the rebels as criminals involved in drug smuggling and arms trafficking, which are rife in the remote Saharan borderlands.
Mali, while also using its armed forces to combat Tuareg rebels on its own territory, has engaged in several attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict, mostly with mediation from its northern neighbour, Algeria, a major regional rival of Libya.
A splinter group calling itself the Niger Patriotic Front (FPN) split from the main MNJ in March, saying it wanted a negotiated peace.
Last week a group calling itself the Front of Friends of Niger, which said it represented several armed Tuareg groups, announced a plan to surrender weapons following a call from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the current head of the African Union, al-Jazeera TV reported from Tripoli.
“Preliminary conditions set in the framework agreement include a general amnesty for all members of the front, the release of detainees and lifting the state of emergency in the country,” the TV station quoted a member of the group as saying.