Niger’s government and main Tuareg rebel groups have agreed at Libyan-sponsored talks to make peace in the country’s uranium-mining north, Libyan state media and a rebel website say.
Reuters notes the joint peace declaration late on Monday was the most inclusive yet between Tuareg rebels who launched an uprising two years ago, and the government, which had dismissed them as smugglers and bandits for most of that time.
Nomadic Tuaregs launched uprisings in the Sahara in the 1960s and 1990s, and renewed rebellions since early 2007 against the governments of Niger and neighbouring Mali have increased instability in a region where al Qaeda cells also operate.
Government and rebel leaders declared peace in the presence of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, current chairman of the African Union, the Libyan state news agency Jana reported.
“Two days of talks … were crowned by an announcement in front of the brother leader of the Revolution and African Union Chairman that they commit themselves to keep up total and comprehensive peace in Niger,” Jana said.
Niger’s Interior Minister Albade Abouba, who led the government delegation, met representatives from three Tuareg rebel groups, one such group, the Niger Patriotic Front (FPN), said in a statement posted on its website.
“All the delegations spoke in favour of peace and national reconciliation. The two sides took the guide of the revolution, and through him the whole of Africa, as witness to their real and sincere desire to work for peace,” the FPN said.
“All those taking part in this mission now have the historic responsibility to overcome their differences and realise these commitments, which must now be transformed into a formal peace agreement,” the FPN said.
The FPN split in March from the Niger Justice Movement (MNJ), which launched the armed revolt in Niger’s northern Saharan region in February 2007, since when over 300 rebels and some 80 government soldiers have been killed.
“We are very happy for having reached this outcome today and at this place after meeting several times,” Jana quoted MNJ leader Aghaly ag Alambo as saying on Monday.
Last August, Alambo dismissed reports by Niger’s state media that his fighters would lay down their arms and join a Libyan-mediated peace process. But some Tuareg fighters did surrender then, and the MNJ has been riven with in-fighting.
The FPN said when it split from the MNJ that it wanted a negotiated peace.
Later in March a group calling itself the Front of Friends of Niger, which said it represented several armed Tuareg groups, said it planned to surrender arms following a call from Gaddafi to Tuareg rebels in Niger and Mali to abandon armed struggle.
“The Sahara is polluted by all these groups. The situation in the Sahara concerns me. I have resolved that peace will prevail in the Sahara,” Gaddafi said in March, vowing to rid Africa’s biggest desert of drug traffickers, arms smugglers and Islamist rebels.
Al Qaeda’s North African wing has heightened insecurity in the area where international resources firms such as Areva and Cameco have operations.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has said it is holding four European tourists seized on the Niger-Mali border in January, and two Canadian diplomats taken in southern Niger in December.
Previous hostage releases have been helped by negotiations with local Tuareg community leaders, Reuters reports.