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Niger leader meets Tuareg rebels

4 May 09 13:01 GMT

Niger's President Mamadou Tandja has held peace talks with Tuareg rebel leaders for the first time.

He met the rebels in the northern town of Agadez, a place of symbolic importance for the Tuareg people.

After two-hours of talks, President Tandja told reporters he had offered an amnesty if the three rebel groups laid down their weapons.

Mr Tandja has also launched the construction of a giant uranium mine in the area, reports the AFP news agency.

The rebels, who operate deep in the Sahara desert, have been fighting for a greater share of Niger's uranium wealth.

'Armed bandits'

"We have asked them to put down their weapons and come build the country with us. We forgive them because we want peace in Niger," Mr Tandja said in remarks broadcast on state radio.

Delegations from the three groups - the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) and two breakaway formations movements, Front of Forces for Rectification (FFR) and Niger Patriotic Front (FPN) - arrived from Libya, which has been mediating in the dispute.

The talks come after the rebels released the last of eight hostages.

The last hostage to be released, Nigerien soldier Mamane Louali, was seized in June 2007 when rebels binned a 1995 peace deal - claiming the government had broken its promises.

In their latest two-year uprising Mr Tandja has not mentioned them by name, referring to them only as "armed bandits", or "drug smugglers".

The decades old conflict between nomadic Tuaregs and the government has been reignited by the exploitation of uranium in the northern deserts of Niger.

The new mine at Imouraren, built in partnership with French nuclear power giants Areva, is expected to boost Niger's uranium production from 3,000 to 5,000 tons per year.

It is being described as the biggest uranium mine in Africa and the second biggest in the world.

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