Mali leader warns north could become criminal hub

President of Mali Ibrahim Boubacar Keita arrives at the White House during the US Africa Leaders Summit August 5, 2014 in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Washington (AFP) - Mali's leader warned Thursday that a lack of air surveillance in his country's troubled north could pose risks for the world by allowing criminals to use it as a base.

On a visit to Washington for a US-Africa summit, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said his government was committed to negotiating a peaceful solution with Tuareg separatists after rebels and Al-Qaeda-linked militants overran much of the north in 2012.

But Keita, who was elected in August, said the central government lacked air surveillance in the vast Saharan area.

He said that drug traffickers, jihadists or other undesirable elements could take advantage of the lack of control and use the area as a base to fly small aircraft.

"What is happening doesn't just matter for Mali. We're at a strategic nexus," Keita said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"If this becomes an area outside of the law and out of control ... we can see all sorts of activity that is illicit, illegal and dangerous for the peace of the world," he said.

If Mali becomes a drug base, it would pose "a danger for the youth of Mali, Europe and the whole world," he said.

Mali descended into crisis in January 2012, when Tuareg separatists who have waged a long-running, low-level insurgency mounted a string of attacks that the army was ill-equipped to defend.

A military coup in Bamako led to further chaos as Islamist extremists seized the north of Mali.

A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 ousted the extremists. But periodic attacks have resumed and, in a video message Thursday, the leader of a jihadist group driven out by the French offensive re-emerged after 18 months.

Keita thanked France for its efforts and praised the role of US President Barack Obama, who sought closer cooperation on security during the three-day summit.