Soldiers mutiny in Niger

Heavy weapons fire was heard early on Monday in the capital of Niger as mutinous soldiers continued their rebellion in this West African Sahara Desert nation.

It wasn’t immediately clear who was involved in the shooting, which apparently happened around the presidential palace. Comment from officials or rebels was not immediately available.

The shooting came one day after Niger’s military claimed to have retaken a remote desert city from the soldiers, routing them amid the first reported combat and deaths in the 6-day-old uprising. The revolt was not over, however.

Mutineers chased from Diffa were said to be fleeing east to join comrades still holding two other garrison cities nearby. Rebels said they would fight “to the end”.

Disgruntled soldiers protesting months of unpaid salaries launched the mutiny on Wednesday in Diffa, taking control of the town about 1 287 kilometres east of the capital, Niamey.

Soldiers from the two other garrisons, N’guigmi and N’gourti, joined the mutineers the same day.

The heavily armed rebels opened fire on Saturday night on loyalist forces sent from the capital to put down the revolt, Defence Minister Sabiou Dady Gaoh said.

The fighting that followed killed one person on each side, Gaoh said. Two mutineers and one loyalist soldier were injured, and one civilian suffered minor injuries.

“The city of Diffa has come back under the control of the regular army,” Gaoh said.

Rebels, who fled still holding a local Diffa official and five others hostage, were said to be escaping toward N’guigmi, pursued by the army troops.

Rebels said their retreat was “a strategic response in order to spare the lives of the civilian population”. The rebels statement was made from N’Guigmi and aired on private radio Anfani in the capital.

The mutineers ruled out negotiations to end the uprising. Military observers said the fighting could intensify, saying the mutineers know the terrain better than the loyalists deployed from the capital and had depots of sophisticated weapons.

Niger has weathered two coups in the last decade and a five-year insurgency by Tuareg nomads that ended in 1995.

President Tandja Mamadou won democratic elections in 1999, taking power from Colonel Daouda Malam Wanke, who briefly led the country following the assassination the same year of former President Ibrahim Mainassara Bare.

Niger gained independence from France in 1960 and is one of the world’s poorest countries, straddling the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. About 80% of its roughly 10-million inhabitants are Muslim. - Sapa-AP

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