Niamey - At a base near Niger's capital Niamey, more than 400 Malian soldiers who deserted in the face of an uprising in the north of their neighbouring country are encamped with no clues as to their future.

“They have told us nothing, we have no idea what awaits us,” said Hamid, a young soldier in a green turban who declined, like his comrades interviewed by AFP, to give his full name, under orders from his superiors.

“We eat, we sleep, we do a little sport, and that's it. We don't know what tomorrow holds in store for us,” Hamid added, at the camp at Saguia, a village on the Niger river a few kilometres from Niamey.

Most of the 400 to 500 soldiers living in the camp are Tuaregs, who were led by Colonel Alaji Ag Gamou, formerly a pillar of Mali's army in the north of the country.

The troops fled late in March when confronted with a succesful offensive by Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) in the vast desert north of Mali.

For almost two months, an area larger than France has been under the control of the MNLA and an Islamist movement, Ansar Dine, which on Saturday announced their merger, as well as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and criminal bands.

Ag Gamou initially took up a position with his men in the Labezanga region of western Niger, near the border with Mali. Before they were transferred to Niamey, the troops were disarmed, according to a Niger security source.

Access is banned to the camp, which is guarded by local paramilitary police. “We're too bored. In the desert, we are free, but here we're shut in, we want to leave,” said Alhassane, one of Hamid's companions. “The orders must come down fast from the top.”

Nearby, a group of soldiers haggled with a man selling clothes, while others formed a circle around a seller of grilled meat. From outside the camp, soldiers could be seen sitting or lying down by their tents. Others were jogging.

“We had no other choice but to flee,” Hamid said. “The firepower (of the enemy) was superior.” However, he did not want to expand on the rout of the Malian soldiers.

Agali was still wearing his military uniform, with a brown turban. A soldier in his 20s, he accused Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who led a March 22 coup in Bamako that opened the way for the fall of the north, of responsibility for the “upset in Mali”.

“He spoilt everything in Mali,” Agali said. “While he was causing trouble in Bamako, the Islamists gained ground in the north.”

To make amends for the affront, all the soldiers swore as one that they were ready to return to the front line to “fight the Islamists”.

Hamid had a plan of attack. “With the help of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), if we open a front out of Bamako, another out of Algeria and a third from Niger, and with major air support, we are sure of recapturing the north.”

Leaders in Niger, a nation which has itself been confronted with Tuareg rebellions in the past, have made no public comment on the presence of the Malian deserters on their soil.

Last Friday, members of Niger's Collective of Organisations for the Defence of Human Rights (CODDHD) came to visit the camp, but ran into a Malian colonel who denied them access, in spite of approval by Niger's authorities.

“We're not refugees, we're Malian soldiers,” the officer said.

CODDHD coordinator Kanny Anbdoulaye told AFP that it was time that the Niger government “clarifies the status of these military men... Their presence worries us.”

Ag Gamou said at the end of March that he planned to join the MNLA, but he later explained that this was a ruse to escape the enemy. Subsequently reported to be in Burkina Faso, he was received last week by authorities in Algeria, who are concerned about the crisis in neighbouring Mali. - Sapa-AFP