Sahara desert states struggling to contain a growing threat from al Qaeda agreed to put aside their differences and hammer out practical ways to fight the insurgents, an Algerian official said.
Western countries say that unless the region’s fractious governments join forces to fight the insurgents, al Qaeda could turn the Sahara desert into a safe haven along the lines of Yemen and Somalia and use it to launch large-scale attacks.
In a move praised in a US State Department statement as a step towards collectively confronting al Qaeda, Algeria hosted foreign and defence ministers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger for the first conference of its kind.
“We have reached a full consensus to tackle terrorism in the region,” Abdelkader Messahel, Algeria’s Minister Delegate for African and Maghreb Affairs, told reporters after a day of talks behind closed doors in a hotel on the outskirts of Algiers.
“A strategy of action is our choice,” he said. “We will go for action and one step is a meeting between military and anti-terror specialists of the region in Algiers in April.”
That meeting, which Messahel said would be at the level of military chiefs of staff, held out the prospect that Sahara region states would start sharing operational information and co-operating their actions on the ground.
That is a step Western governments say is essential to containing al Qaeda in the Sahara, which has attracted the insurgents with its vast expanses and porous borders. But disagreements have hindered cooperation between states.
Algeria, the region’s dominant economic and military power, is fiercely opposed to Western security forces establishing a presence in the region to counter the militants, but Messahel said the West did have a role.
“We are expecting three things from our international partners: training, equipment and intelligence,” he said.
The State Department statement said it welcomed the decision of Saharan states to meet in the Algerian capital and “collectively confront the threat of terrorism”.
“We hope the meeting will build upon ongoing efforts to strengthen regional cooperation and further consolidate collective action against groups that seek to exploit territories of these countries and launch attacks against innocent civilians,” it said.
Relations between the region’s governments reached a low last month after Mali freed four suspected Islamist militants whose release was demanded by al Qaeda in return for sparing the life of French hostage Pierre Camatte.
Algeria and Mauritania withdrew their ambassadors in Mali in protest and the Algerian government said Mali’s actions were playing into the hands of al Qaeda.
The insurgents last year killed a British hostage, Edwin Dyer. They also shot dead a US aid worker in Mauritania’s capital in June last year, and carried out a suicide bombing on the French embassy there in August that injured three people.
Pic: Soldier in the Sahara desert