August 26, 2006

Niger says Italian hostages no longer in country

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger said on Saturday two Italian
tourists kidnapped by a former Saharan rebel group had been
moved out of the country by their captors to a neighboring
state but gave no further details.

The two hostages were part of a group of more than 20
mainly Italian tourists seized while traveling in a convoy of
vehicles in desert terrain in the West African country on
Monday. The other hostages were freed on Tuesday.

"The (two) abducted tourists are no longer on Niger's
territory but in a neighboring country. The authorities in
Niger ... are doing their best to obtain their release,"
government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar told state television.

The tourists were seized in southeastern Niger near the
Chad border by a former rebel group called the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of the Sahara (FARS), whose traditional operating
base is further north near the Libyan border.

Niger's government has in the past accused FARS -- which
fought a rebellion in the 1990s but signed a peace agreement in
1997 -- of working with armed groups from Chad. FARS staged an
uprising with other nomadic groups in the north in the 1990s.

The Italian Foreign Ministry said earlier the kidnappers
had said they would release the remaining two hostages if Italy
published a statement condemning Niger's government.

The ministry distributed a copy of the statement to news
organizations, saying the pair's release should come "right
after" such action under an agreement with a rebel leader.


In its statement, FARS told foreigners to stay away from
Niger and said the government was "not democratic."

"All the foreigners, even those with work-related reasons,
cannot come to Niger until new orders. In Niger there are not
the conditions for security," the statement said.

Military sources in Niger have in the past said that after
FARS signed the 1997 peace accord it transformed itself into a
criminal group, carrying out acts of banditry and smuggling
stolen goods and arms along the border region with Libya.

The government said the hostage-taking incident did not
pose any threat to Niger's political integrity.

"There is no rebellion in Niger ... These bandits are
deliberately using the label of FARS," Ben Omar said, calling
on the attackers to release their hostages.

A senior member of the former rebel group contacted by
Reuters said its main demand was that justice be done for the
killing by government soldiers of its leader, Chahai Barkay, in
a raid in September 2001.

"For five years nothing has been done," he said by
satellite phone, asking not to be named and adding that the
government had not respected the terms of the peace deal. "We
had to sound the alarm so that people would listen to us."

The tourists were seized between the oasis town of Bilma
and the village of Agadem on a particularly arduous 250 km
(150-mile) stretch of an ancient camel-caravan route.

(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Dakar and Phil
Stewart in Rome)