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Sunday, 4 August, 2002, 22:13 GMT 23:13 UK
Niger mutineers release hostages
Mutinous soldiers in south-eastern Niger who are holding several local officials hostage have released at least two of their captives, after government troops drove them from the garrison town of Diffa.

Government forces moved into the town on Saturday and, after a small-scale gunfight, found that most of the rebels had fled, taking several hostages with them.

Niger soldiers
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world
The mutineers, who are demanding five months' back-pay and better conditions, are believed to have headed north to other garrison towns that they control, with government troops in pursuit.

On Sunday, state radio and television reported that the rebels had released two of their captives, including the Diffa regional governor and a chief of the Nguigmi district - but they still hold at least four others.

Loyal troops

The government, which vowed that the rebellion would be "crushed", now has at least 800 loyal troops in the region, with the latest contingent arriving on Sunday.

But the rebels, who are believed to number 1,000, have reportedly taken large amounts of heavy weaponry, including tanks and anti-aircraft artillery, as they fled into the Sahara.

The majority are heading north from Diffa, apparently to Ngourti, 500 kilometres (300 miles) away. Smaller groups of rebels appear to be moving east towards the border with Chad and south towards the border with Nigeria.

The BBC's West Africa correspondent, Paul Welsh, says there are no signs of a weakening of the mutiny, and that as the rebels move deeper into the desert their advantage over the government troops sent from the capital, Niamey, increases.

Niger soldiers (Pic: Focus on Africa magazine)
Niger soldiers have a history of mutinies

In Saturday's confrontation, eight rebels were reportedly taken prisoner by government troops, and two were believed killed.

The soldiers mutinied on Wednesday, demanding five months' back-pay, the firing of the chief of staff, and a meeting with Prime Minister Hama Amadou.

No talks

The rebels said they were willing to negotiate, but the government refused, having sent troops to the remote region - more than 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) east of Niamey.

The mutineers had reportedly imposed a curfew and erected barricades at the entrance to the town.

Correspondents says soldiers posted to the desert region often feel isolated and ignored by the authorities in the capital.

The mutiny is the first in Niger since the 1999 election of President Mamadou Tandja, who comes from Diffa.

The landlocked former French colony - one of the poorest countries in the world - saw a spate of army mutinies in the late 1990s.

See also:

03 Aug 02 | Africa
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27 Nov 99 | Africa
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