Niger rebels free 14 hostages in Ramzan gesture

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NIAMEY, Sep 17 (Reuters) Fourteen Niger government soldiers freed by Tuareg-led rebels as a peace gesture during the Muslim holy month of Ramzan flew back to the capital Niamey today, army officials said.

The soldiers, 10 regular army and four Republican Guards, were released to Libyan authorities following mediation by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a spokesman for the rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) told Radio France International.

Government officials said the group arrived in the capital Niamey this morning on board a Libyan plane.

''The hostages freed by the armed bandits arrived in Niamey on today where they met their families. They will also undergo medical checks,'' a senior army officer, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

The government refuses to recognise the MNJ, dismissing its members as drug traffickers and highway robbers.

The prisoners were captured during raids by MNJ fighters earlier this year in Niger's uranium-rich north, which have killed more than 40 soldiers. Last month, President Mamadou Tandja declared a state of alert in the northern Agadez region.

The MNJ rebels, light-skinned desert nomads who seek more autonomy for their Saharan region and a greater share of its wealth, announced last week they would halt attacks during Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting, which began on Friday.

''The MNJ ... is freeing 14 prisoners who will return to their families during this blessed month of Ramzan,'' the group said on its Web site www.m-n-j.blogspot.com.

''Through this action, we are demonstrating ... once again our commitment to respect human rights and our readiness to find a peaceful solution to our conflict with Niger's current leaders,'' the MNJ said.

Tuareg rebels in neighbouring Mali have also stepped up attacks in recent weeks in what appears to be a revival of a previous 1990s rebellion by northern nomads in both of the former French colonies.

They complain of being neglected by black-dominated governments ruling far away to the south.

Niger's government has asked neighbouring countries like Libya to tighten security on their borders to stop arms reaching the rebels.

Reuters SKB GC1932

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