After meeting Tuareg rebel leaders Sunday for the first time since the latest rebellion started two years ago, Niger's President Mamadou Tandja said that he was prepared to grant them amnesty if they laid down their arms.
AFP - Niger President Mamadou Tandja has promised amnesty to Tuareg rebels if they disarmed after meeting them for peace talks for the first time.
"For a long time we have asked them to put down their weapons and come build the country with us. We forgive them because we want peace in Niger," Tandja said in remarks broadcast on the radio after Sunday's meeting.
"You do not build a country with weapons in hand," he said after meeting with the three rebel groups. "Come back to work for the development of your country."
But no date was announced for a disarmament or the signing of a peace agreement, and the rebels have yet to issue a public response to Tandja's offer.
Tandja met with the rebels in the Tuareg town of Agadez on Sunday in his first trip to the conflict zone in the country's north since the latest rebellion started in 2007.
The president had refused to talk with the rebels for the last two years, accusing their leaders of being "bandits" and "drug traffickers."
The Tuaregs are nomadic tribes who roamed the Sahara for centuries before nations of the region gained independence from European colonial powers.
Tandja met with around a dozen representatives of three Tuareg rebel groups on Sunday, including the Nigerian Movement for Justice (MNJ), which has been fighting since 2007 for a greater share of the wealth and jobs provided by northern Niger's vast uranium reserves.
Sunday's meeting represented the first time in two years that Tandja has visited the north of the country.
"Since the start of the rebellion, we have freed more than 85 prisoners, which is testimony to our desire for peace," Ahmed Agaya, one of the rebel MNJ delegates to the talks, told the radio.
Agaya said his movement has already passed its demands to the president. The fighters are demanding greater integration of Tuaregs into the army, the paramilitary police and the mining sector.
Political analyst Souley Adji said Tandja's about-face on the rebels was likely due to "the ecomomic and financial stakes" linked to French giant Areva's development of Africa's biggest uranium mine at Imouraren.
The talks and the announcement appeared to be timed to coincide with the president's official launch on Monday of work on construction of the mine.
Officially, no peace negotiations have yet taken place and no date for a possible rebel disarmament or the signing of a peace deal has been set.
Niamey began talks with the rebels in March, prompted by Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, who called on the rebels to end hostilities and join the peace process.
Date created : 2009-05-04