Militants, Niger soldiers killed in desert clashes

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NIAMEY, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Nine unidentified militants, seven Niger soldiers and a civilian were killed during clashes late last week near Niger's border with Mali, a military official said on Monday.

Security sources in Niger, which has substantial deposits of uranium, had said on Saturday they killed two militants in the fighting in the area where Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda cells are active.

"The search to capture the remaining elements of the armed group is ongoing," the military official said on condition of anonymity, adding that soldiers had seized several of the militants' vehicles along with guns and ammunition.

Niger's vast uranium and other mineral deposits have attracted billions of dollars in investments from major international companies, including France's Areva <CEPFi.PA> and Canada's Cameco <CCO.TO>. [ID:nLJ41133]

The latest fighting comes after four Saudi Arabian travellers were killed in an apparent botched hostage-taking in the area on Dec. 28.

Four Westerners -- three Spaniards and one Frenchman -- are believed to be in neighbouring Mali and held hostage by al Qaeda operatives. [ID:nLDE5BS1EC]

Separately on Monday, Niger's main Tuareg group, MNJ, handed over weapons and 50 vehicles in a ceremony near Arlit in the country's north as part of a peace deal brokered between the fighters and the governments of Niger and Mali in October.

(Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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