NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger President Mamadou Tandja faced calls on Monday to negotiate a peace with Tuareg rebels whose increasingly bold attacks risk frightening off investors and development partners in the mineral-rich desert north.
Nomadic fighters from a Tuareg insurgent group, the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), opened fire on the airport at Agadez late on Sunday in a hit-and-run raid that shocked residents of the Saharan trading town, which is also popular with tourists.
Agadez, 1,000 km north of the capital Niamey, is the gateway to Niger's vast northern desert region where foreign companies are exploring for uranium and oil. Niger is one of the world's largest uranium producers along with Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Russia and Namibia.
Although local authorities said the Agadez raid caused no casualties or serious damage, it was one of the most daring strikes so far by the insurgents, who have attacked military posts and a uranium mine this year, killing several soldiers.
Tandja's government has so far refused to recognise or negotiate with the MNJ, dismissing them as "bandits".
But their widening attacks have raised fears of a repeat of a 1990s rebellion by light-skinned ethnic Tuareg, Arab and Toubou groups who accused the black-dominated central government of treating them as second-class citizens.
Civil society leaders said the government should seek talks with the rebels to address their grievances.
"We don't want to know whether it's a rebellion or banditry ... there should be a dialogue," Khalid Ikhiri, president of the Niger Association for the Defence of Human Rights, said.
"One thing is certain. If the situation worsens, there is a high chance that our development partners will withdraw from the north, as they did during the conflict in the 1990s," he added.
Most of the previous rebels accepted peace deals in 1995, including integration into the armed forces. But discontent has simmered since then and most of the MNJ members were believed to be Tuareg deserters from the ranks of the Niger security forces.
Seeking to take advantage of improved international prices for uranium, Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, has been granting many new mining exploration licences to firms from Europe, North America, India and China.
But insecurity in the north has got worse, marked by acts of banditry, carjacking and kidnapping.
Suspected rebels in April attacked a uranium mine operated by a subsidiary of French mining group AREVA, killing a soldier.
A week ago, the governor of Agadez banned travel between northern towns without military escort.
Aghaly ag Alambo, the leader of the MNJ rebel group, told Radio France Internationale on Sunday his fighters attacked Agadez airport in reprisal for the killing of three Tuareg elders by the army this month.
The army said it did not kill "innocent civilians".
Alambo said the raiders also tried to destroy ultralight aircraft used by the military for reconnaissance flights.
On its Website, the MNJ accused the government of "ethnic killing" of Tuaregs. "In Niger, there are second class citizens and they are found in the north of the country, that same north that provides for the needs of the country," it added, referring to the uranium that accounts for two-thirds of Niger's exports.
The government has been forced to send army reinforcements to the north and last month approved more than $60 million in extra budget funds to confront the attacks.
Despite its mineral riches, which besides uranium include iron ore, coal, copper, silver, platinum, titanium and lithium, Niger was listed bottom of a 2006 U.N. development index ranking countries by quality of life.
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