At least one international relief organisation has suspended its work in the north of Niger because armed groups are commandeering vehicles and laying anti-personnel mines in the area.
“The whole commune of Iferouane [in north Niger] has become a little dicey,” said Jeff Ratcliffe, head of the Irish Red Cross in Niger which “temporarily halted” operations after one of its vehicles was carjacked in Agadez the main city in the north on 8 May.
“Eight men wearing military fatigues armed with Kalashnikov and pistols were waiting right in front of our gate to steal the four wheel drive,” he said.
Many other four wheel drives and motorcycles have been stolen in Agadez in recent weeks he said adding that government soldiers were also frequently under attack.
“The army is very much being targeted by bandits or rebel elements” Ratcliffe said.
The governor of Agadez, Abba Malam Aouaouaar Boukar, has confirmed that anti-personnel mines have been laid around an army barracks 200 kilometres north of Agadez at the town Iferouane, as well as elsewhere.
“Practically all main roads have been mined in the region as well as many back roads,” he said at a public meeting in Agadez last week.
A new Touareg rebel movement, Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (MNJ), which has been active in northern Niger since February this year, said soldiers have been defecting from the army to join their ranks and that they bear responsibility for many of the carjackings.
But MNJ spokesperson Moktar Roman denied that anyone associated with the MNJ had stolen the Red Cross vehicle.
“There’s a group that we don’t control; a group of bandits who have nothing to do with the MNJ,” said the spokesperson.
The Nigerien government confirmed that at least a dozen Touareg soldiers have deserted the army since May. Army sources said some recently stole a heavily armed military truck.
In May the government imposed a curfew in Agadez, banning four wheel drive vehicles from circulating after 6pm and recommending motorcyclists to avoid the suburbs after 10pm.
The relief organizations maintaining offices in Agadez include Africare, the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the French and Irish Red Cross and a project funded by the German aid agency GTZ.