Niger's army launched a major offensive against Tuareg rebels, just as neighboring Mali tried to end the bloodshed after heavy fighting between Tuareg gunmen and its troops earlier this week.
The new operation by Niger’s troops, the first major action in two months, already left 11 rebels dead and led to the seizure of large quantities of ammunition, said a defense ministry statement.
The action took place in the northern oasis town of Iferouane, and the ministry only released news of the attack on Friday, a day after the offensive against the rebel Movement of Niger People for Justice (MNJ) forces.
It came on the heels of clashes between Tuaregs and government forces in Mali on Wednesday, during which 15 soldiers and 17 rebels died.
These clashes, in the north of Mali on the border with Algeria, were the most serious for some time and provoked a statement from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday expressing his concern.
Algeria’s ambassador to Mali, who has been mediating in the conflict between the government and the rebels, contacted both sides to try to restart peace talks, a source close to Mali’s president said on Friday.
Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure’ had stressed the importance of both sides respecting the Algiers peace accord signed in 2006, the same source said.
A member of rebel leader Ibrahim Ag Bahanga’s entourage confirmed on Friday that he had been in touch by telephone with the Algerian ambassador Abdelkrim Gheraieb.
Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja has been less conciliatory however, refusing any talks with the MNJ, whose leaders he has dismissed as bandits and drug traffickers.
“The ‘armed bandits’ are being routed, they control nothing in the zone,” said government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar.
But the rebels are still holding six soldiers captured earlier this month, as well as a human rights activist they accuse of having sold weapons to the army.
One military source, who asked not to be identified, said the operation was aimed at gaining control of the north of the country, where most of Niger’s uranium reserves are located.