NIAMEY, Niger – A Tuareg rebel group claimed responsibility for the abduction of a U.N. envoy on the outskirts of Niger's capital, saying Tuesday that the veteran Canadian diplomat was in good health.
But hours later, the group reversed course, posting a second statement signed by a different rebel leader that condemned the kidnapping of Robert Fowler and denied responsibility.
It was unclear if the contradictory statements indicated a rift in the Front for the Forces of Redress, or FFR, a rebel group comprised of ethnic Tuaregs, a nomadic people who inhabit the vast deserts that cross northern Africa. The second statement, signed by the president of the group, left open the possibility that dissident rebels acting in the name of the FFR could be responsible.
"If others who adhere to the ideals of the FFR did take the Canadian diplomat hostage, the FFR cannot assume responsibility," it said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who appointed Fowler as U.N. special envoy to Niger in July, said his staff was doing all it could to find out what happened. Fowler, his Canadian deputy and their driver were reported missing on Sunday after their abandoned car was found 30 miles northeast of Niamey, Niger's capital.
The FFR is a splinter group in a larger rebellion being fought by Tuareg rebels in Niger's northern desert. The Tuaregs have long been at odds with the governments of the various states touched by the desert, including Niger.
A rebellion broke out in 1990 and ended with a 1995 peace accord. It promised a degree of autonomy, development funds for the north, and integration of the Tuareg minority into the country's armed forces and government.
But hostilities resumed last year as the government of President Mamadou Tandja intensified uranium drilling in the northern desert.
"We are sending Canada a strong signal as they are one of the sources of arms for Tandja used to fight the native population," said the first statement posted on the group's Web site Tuesday.
Soon after the first statement was posted on the FFR Web site claiming responsibility, the main Tuareg rebel group based in Niger posted a note on its Web site, condemning the alleged abduction. The Niger Movement for Justice, known by its French abbreviation MNJ, has taken dozens of soldiers in Niger hostage but is not known for taking foreigners.
Their statement reveals a potential split within the Tuareg rebellion, with the MNJ asking: "Who is it that is bothered by the mission of Mr. Fowler in Niger? Certainly not Niger Movement for Justice."