By Emma Farge
DAKAR (Reuters) - A dormant Senegalese rebel movement has called for the abandonment of a planned mineral sands project operated by Australia-listed Astron, saying it amounts to "a declaration of war".
A spokesman for the Movement of Democratic Forces for Casamance (MFDC) on Thursday said that it had not been consulted about the project and considers any exploitation of natural resources in the southern region as theft because taxes on proceeds would go to the northern government of Dakar.
The opposition to the Niafarang mine comes as the stable West African fish and peanut exporter seeks to boost revenue from natural resources such as mineral sands containing zircon and ilmenite used in construction as well as recently discovered oil and gas.
"Both the political and armed wings of the MFDC are strongly opposed to this project and consider it a declaration of war," said MFDC spokesman Oumar Ampoi Bodian by telephone from Ziguinchor in Casamance.
The comments echoed a statement by MFDC military commander Salif Sadio in July. Sadio had said that the mineral sands project was a violation of the terms of the ceasefire deal with the rebels in 2014.
Astron did not respond to emailed requests for comment. It said in June, when the contract was awarded, that work was due to begin in the fourth quarter of 2017. [nFWN1JC0OG]
A government spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Unlike many of its West African neighbors, Senegal has never had a civil war or a coup and is seen by Western aid partners and investors as a bastion of stability in a fragile region.
But Casamance's isolation from the relatively rich Muslim north from which it is divided by Gambia and its eponymous river remains a source of resentment for locals.
One of Africa's oldest rebellions was losing steam even before the ceasefire deal and some diplomats dismiss them as a divided group of rag-tag fighters. Yet the rebels still hold garrisons concealed within the southern region's lush forests, which witnesses say are piled high with weapons.
Civil society groups have also criticized the mine planned along a picturesque strip of coastline, citing environmental factors. Astron previously said it had studied the environmental impact and engaged with the local community.
"They (the MFDC) are united on this and are saying it publicly, so I am afraid that this long period of calm could end," said Ousmane Sane, a resident and hotelier in Niafarang.
A source familiar with the peace talks said that the matter would be raised with the government in the next round of negotiations aimed at settling the question of the region's official status.
(Editing by David Goodman)