NIAMEY, Sep 17 (Reuters) Tuareg-led rebels in Niger said today they had freed 14 government soldiers as a peace gesture during the Muslim holy month of Ramzan.
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.
Niger's Communications Minister Mohamed Ben Omar said in Niamey the government had no knowledge of the release.
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 Website 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 refuses to recognise the MNJ, which it dismisses as bandits trafficking in arms and drugs.
It has asked neighbouring countries like Libya to tighten security on their borders to stop arms reaching the rebels.
Reuters SKB GC1529