Tuareg rebels tell foreigner miners to leave Niger
NIAMEY, July 8 (Reuters) Tuareg-led rebels in northern Niger called on all foreign mining companies to withdraw their expatriate staff from the West African state for their own safety after they kidnapped a Chinese executive on Friday.
The rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), made up largely of Tuareg and other nomadic tribes, seized Zhang Guohua, an executive at the China Nuclear International Uranium Corp (Sino-U), close to the oasis town of Ingall.
The rebels accuse Sino-U of helping to fund government arms purchases to suppress their uprising, and it said Zhang's kidnapping was meant as a warning.
''We demand that all countries with expatriates in the conflict zone who are there for exploration and exploitation of mining resources (and not development projects) order them to leave ... for their own safety,'' the MNJ said in a statement posted on its Web site.
Since February, the rebel group has launched a series of attacks against military and mining concerns in Niger's mineral-rich north, home to the world's fourth biggest uranium mining industry, killing at least 33 soldiers.
The group says the central government is neglecting the region and wants local people to have greater control over its mineral resources, including iron ore, silver, platinum and titanium.
The rebel group said it would never allow a mining company to operate in the Ingall area, a rich pastoral zone around 1,000 km north of the capital, Niamey, where nomads gather in September for their herds to graze on the mineral-rich grass.
The rebels say the government has used the proceeds from mining permits to buy two Russian-made Mi-24 attack helicopters to strike its positions and the army is using Chinese-made arms.
''The MNJ is warning Chinese companies. We advise an immediate halt to all mining in northern Niger because no foreigner will be safe as long as the army continues its repression,'' the statement said.
Pressure built on President Mamadou Tandja to hold talks with the leaders of the bloody five-month uprising on Thursday when Niger's ruling National Movement for a Developing Society (MNSD) backed growing demands for negotiations.
Yesterday, however, teaching and student unions threw their support behind Tandja's refusal to recognise the MNJ, branding the group a ''Mafioso ring'' and calling their demands unrealistic.
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