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Algeria seeks new border security systems as war clouds gather over Mali

altThe Algerian defence ministry is looking at issuing an international tender for the procurement, development and operationalisation of a new sophisticated border surveillance system, as the country steps up measures to secure its borders against infiltration by terrorists, bandits, arms dealers and drug smugglers.

Although the initial plan to upgrade surveillance on trans-Sahel routes was made in 2006, the government has re-prioritised it as an urgent matter in view of a total breakdown of security in Islamist-held northern Mali and recurring armed insurrection and political instability in Libya. According to information from the defence ministry, Algeria has already met representatives from some foreign companies specialised in surveillance and monitoring systems, who are jostling to clinch a potentially US$1.5 billion dollar contract.

The country wants to develop a border surveillance system with electronic surveillance points, alarms and radar systems capable of detecting border infiltration attempts by humans and vehicles. The surveillance systems will be backed up by intensive aerial surveillance operations along the Libyan and Malian borders. Radar surveillance operations will be backed up with ground patrols by special counter-insurgency troops already deployed along the borders with Mali and Libya.

Since the seizure of northern Mali by Islamist groups, the Algerian Army has stepped up military deployments and increased surveillances flights over the southern part of the country, largely inhabited by the Tuareg. Algeria fears that military action in Mali will most likely extend the instability in Mali into its territory. Early this month, the Algerian army started building a 50km-long electric fence between the Algerian town of Bourj Badji Mokhtar and Malian territory.

"Algeria relies on a double-pronged approach to border protection. They are securing the borders and launching measures to develop the border areas by stabilising the actual population via opening routes and new roads to facilitate the movement of goods. They are also developing commercial activities by laying a fibre optic network, allowing users to keep in touch with their relatives," former Algerian military commander Ben Thamer was quoted as saying.

The new security measures are also aimed at preventing terrorists and arms smugglers, who travel in caravans from Libya through southern Algeria and into northern Mali, from using the vast expanse of the Sahara desert to store weapons on transit to West Africa. Last month, Algerian forces arrested 13 suspected insurgents who were en-route from Libya to Mali and seized AK-47 assault rifles, some machine guns and a sports utility vehicle in the province of Illizi near the border with Libya.

On 31 October, the army arrested six arms dealers who were on their way to northern Mali from the Libyan city of Ghadames. They were found in possession of 21 AK-47 assault rifles, huge quantities of ammunition and two stolen sports utility vehicles.

Since the Malian crisis began in April, Algeria has deployed several special forces battalion to patrol the southern borders and the provinces of Ouargla, El Oued, Ghardaia and Tamanrasset. According to a statement from the army command, seventeen new units specialised in guerrilla warfare were set up and deployed to the provinces bordering Libya between January and September this year.

The army has also set up thirteen new bases for the gendarmerie units in provinces bordering Mali. It also operates an 'operations room' to coordinate operations between the military and other intelligence agencies monitoring the activities of jihadist outfits in northern Mali. Algeria remains bitterly opposed to military action and has repeatedly said that it favours a political settlement of the security crisis in northern Mali. Foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Belani said although Algeria is beefing up security, it remains opposed to military action in Mali after considering the possible implications to its national security.

"Algeria will anticipate all possible developments in the Sahel region and will therefore take, in a sovereign manner, the appropriate steps to protect its interests and defend its borders to the fullest extent possible. It would be a tragic mistake to plan and execute a military intervention mission which would be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an expedition for the purpose of attacking the Touareg," Belani told Tout sur l'Algérie.

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