NIAMEY, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Niger's cabinet on Friday suspended a decision to deport thousands of Mahamid Arabs back to Chad after neighbouring countries intervened to request a halt, the communications minister said.
The West African government had announced on Tuesday it would expel the nomadic Arabs, who sought refuge in Niger from drought and warfare in Chad during the 1980s, but the decision provoked alarm among the country's broader Arab community.
"The government has decided to suspend the operation," Communication Minister Oumarou Hadari told Reuters after a cabinet meeting. "There was intervention by certain neighbouring friendly countries."
Hundreds of thousands of Nigeriens live in other states throughout the region, many in Arab-controlled countries such as Algeria, Libya or Sudan.
Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja's government has said the operation was purely to tackle illegal immigration and it denied that Arabs were being ethnically targeted.
The government estimate only around 3,000 Mahamid Arabs live without residence papers in Niger. But community leaders say the nomads numbers tens of thousands and local government officials put the figure are high as 150,000.
Niger accuses the Mahamid Arabs of possessing illegal firearms and of posing a threat to the security of local communities.
It says their camels have been draining water supplies -- a serious cause of tension as the arid Sahel suffers its worst drought on record, leading to conflict between pastoralists and farmers for scarce resources.
Hadari said the government in Niamey had sent a delegation to the southeast region of Diffa on Friday to meet leaders of the Mahamid community.
In recent days, security forces carried out house-to-house searches and scoured the scrubland for nomads without proper identity papers, who were taken to the town of Kabelewa near the Chadian border to be deported, military sources said.
The expulsion of the Arabs back to Chad had been due to begin next week, the sources said.
Political analysts had warned the expulsions could have a destabilising effect on Chad, which is fighting a long-standing insurgency in its east which flared again this week.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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