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Last Updated: Friday, 7 September 2007, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
Q&A: Tuareg unrest
A Tuareg man
Many Tuaregs say they feel isolated and ignored by governments
More than 44 soldiers have been killed in Niger since the formation in February of a new rebel group, the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ).

Initially confined to Niger, recent tensions are now spilling into neighbouring Mali, where scores of government troops have been abducted in the country's remote north. While rebels in both countries claim not to seek political dominance, and talk of widespread rebellion is still dismissed by analysts, the rising tide of insurgency is a sure and growing obstacle to the stability of the Sahel.

Who are the Tuareg?

The Tuareg are a nomadic people descended from the Berbers of North Africa.

For hundreds of years, they have operated caravans across the Sahara desert, trading in dates, perfume, spices and slaves.

Summer temperatures in the Sahara reach 50C and winter brings "Harmattan" dust storms which can block out the sun for days.

At the end of French colonial rule in West Africa, the Tuareg found themselves straddled between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to the south; Algeria and Libya to the north.

They share their own language - Tamasheq - and have been largely Muslim since the 16th Century.

They are known as the "Blue men of the desert" because of their trademark indigo gowns and turbans, which also cover their mouths.

Drinking tea is considered an important social ritual with cups drunk in threes; sweet and often flavoured with mint.

What are the Tuaregs' grievances?

While it is hard to assess the level of support for the methods of militant groups among all ethnic Tuareg, the nature of their grievances is broadly the same.

Their forefathers largely subdued by French colonial rule, today's Tuareg in Mali and Niger complain of poor representation in governments and militaries dominated by the darker-skinned peoples of the southern Sahel.

The result, they say, has been marginalisation and a continued failure to tackle Tuareg poverty.

A booming uranium industry in Niger is also the source of controversy.

Mining, the Tuareg say, has damaged valuable pastoral lands; while revenues have failed to benefit local communities.

What have the rebels done?

Treaties signed in Mali and Niger during the mid-1990s ended a period of open Tuareg revolt and brought a decade of relative calm to the region.

Tuareg with camels
Camel racing is a popular Tuareg past-time
But in February this year, Tuareg in Niger, apparently frustrated by continuing inequalities, took up arms and formed the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ).

A series of attacks by the group on government facilities in the Sahara has since claimed the lives of dozens of soldiers.

Neighbouring Mali has also seen a rise in Tuareg rebel activity where large numbers have been taken prisoner this year.

A colonel in the Malian army is, in addition, known to have defected to join the rebels.

What are the Mali and Niger governments doing?

On the diplomatic side, there have been fresh attempts at reconciliation.

The Malian government held talks in Algiers earlier this year with Tuareg opposition group, the Democratic Alliance (DA).

The Niger government has, for its part, called on President Muammar Gaddafi of Libya to mediate in its dealings with the MNJ.

Meanwhile, the security ministers of Mali and Niger held talks in August to co-ordinate efforts on the ground.

They have agreed to joint patrols along their common border and to allow both countries' forces to pursue rebels into each others' territory.

President Mamadou Tandja of Niger has also called this week for greater international support in resolving the problem.

It remains to be seen, however, what this will mean.

What has the impact been on the civilian populations?

While life is said to continue as normal in the capitals of Bamako and Niamey, aid agencies suggest the disruption of Saharan supply routes by recent events is being increasingly felt by people in rural areas.

This comes alongside dislocation from recent floods which have affected some 14,000 in Niger alone.

Concern has also been raised about the continued diverting of funds away from existing problems such as housing and the fight against malaria.

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