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AGADEZ, Sept 16 (Reuters) - A Nigerien soldier and three suspected al Qaeda members died and two soldiers were wounded in a clash in the Air mountain region in the north of Niger on Thursday, the defence minister said in a statement.
Karidjo Mahamadou said Nigerien troops clashed with al Qaeda members, who were trying to set up a camp in the area, and freed 59 youths of around 19 to 20 years old, who had been recruited to be trained by the north African wing of Al Qaeda (AQIM).
The minister said two vehicles and several weapons including a rocket launcher, three AK-47 assault rifles, a machinegun and a significant amount of ammunition were seized.
"On September 15, a detachment of the army clashed with elements of AQIM in the northern part of the Air (Niger desert). There was one dead on the army side and two injured while three Al Qaeda members were killed," the statement said.
Niger has called for international help with intelligence-gathering and aerial surveillance to secure its desert north, some six million square kilometres (2.3 million square miles), already a venue for al Qaeda's North African wing and bandits.
It has also voiced concern that weapons plundered from the Libyan conflict could fall into the hands of al Qaeda or other rebel groups who could use the weapons to destabilise countries in the region.
The minister said a similar clash with al Qaeda members occurred on Sept. 3 in the south of Agadez.
Four people also died in that clash including a Nigerien soldier and three al Qaeda members. Nearly 5,000 kg of cannabis, a vehicle and four assault weapons and ammunition were seized.
A spokesman for the government told Reuters in the capital Niamey that the 59 young recruits had been transported to an army garrison in Bilma in the northwest of the country, where they will be questioned. (Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi and Nathalie Prevost in Niamey; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by David Clarke; and Louise Ireland)