ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — The countries of the Sahara — already dealing with armed militants and smugglers — are now confronted with an influx of fighters fleeing the Libyan war, Niger's foreign minister said Wednesday.
Mohamed Bazoum spoke during a two-day conference on terrorism in the Sahara that was originally expected to focus just on al-Qaida, but has now become inextricably tied up with the civil war in neighboring Libya.
Algeria complains that the instability next door has sent a flood of weapons into hands of militants and smugglers in the desert.
"The repercussion of the Libyan crisis on the Sahel region have become palpable, particularly with the arrival of large amounts of weapons and four-wheel drive vehicles and the return of armed individuals involved in the Libyan crisis," said Bazoum.
Moammar Gadhafi, who is now on the run, once supplemented his forces with large numbers of mercenaries and tribesmen from sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Tuaregs, who make up unruly slice of the populations of neighboring Niger and Mali.
Many of these have fled Libya with the victory of Libyan revolutionaries, sending an influx of hardened fighters into the impoverished desert communities around the border that don't have the means to absorb the new arrivals.
There have also been several convoys of armed men crossing into Niger from Libya, confirmed Bazoum, though he denied any contained Gadhafi or his family.
The minister called for a higher profile joint military presence from Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania to patrol the vast wastes of the Sahara that are now the stomping grounds for heavily armed smugglers as well as the North African franchise of al-Qaida.
"The presence of these people in Niger creates serious security problems," Bazoum added.
The security situation across the vast desert and the presence of an al-Qaida franchise with an active kidnapping operation has concerned other countries as well, and high-level delegations from France and the U.S., including the head of the U.S. African command, Gen. Carter Ham, were also attending.
"Although there is no precise quantitative on the movement of weapons in the Sahel region stemming from the Libyan crisis, it is still an issue of concern," said Andre Parant, a special advisor to the French president attending the conference.
Workshops were being held ranging from fighting terrorism and organized crime to implementing local development projects.
"This is an important meeting and the first of its kind and we hope it will develop synergies and cooperation around a core of four countries, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria," Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said at the start of the conference.
He hoped the countries at the conference would share intelligence and work together to develop the impoverished desert region.
Algeria is also in an awkward position regarding the new rulers of Libya, since it was a close ally of Gadhafi's regime and has given refuge to members of his family. On Aug. 29, a convoy including Gadhafi's wife, daughter and two of his sons crossed the border into Algeria and they are now believed to be residing in the capital of Algiers.
Al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb grew out of the armed groups fighting the Algerian government in the 1990s after elections were canceled by the military in 1991 to stave off a victory for an Islamist political party.
The group declared allegiance to al-Qaida in 2006 and changed its name, embarking on a renewed campaign of bombings and kidnappings across the Sahara.
Shari Villarosa, the head of the U.S. delegation and a member of the State Department's anti-terrorism team, estimated AQIM was comprised of less than 1,000 members.
On Sept. 1, AQIM announced it had killed 29 members of Algeria's security forces between July and August, including 18 killed in twin suicide bombings of the Algerian military academy at Cherchell on Aug. 26. The group has also kidnapped a dozen foreigners working or visiting the Sahara Desert.
According to reports cited by the U.S. Embassy in a 2007 cable released by WikiLeaks, the organization has been thriving on ransoms from kidnappings and smuggling routes for guns, cigarettes and drugs through the Sahara.
Algeria's minister for cooperation in the region, Abdelkader Messahel, said the partner countries needed to work together to dry up the militants' sources of revenue, particularly the ransoms from kidnapping.
"These revenues permit terrorist groups to acquire arms, obtain new recruits and improve their logistic capabilities," he said.
Smuggling is mostly carried out by the nomadic Tuareg tribes that are disaffected, impoverished and have periodically fought with the region's governments. The conference aims to implement development programs to wean them away from cooperating with al-Qaida.