Algeria is to host a meeting of foreign ministers from Sahara desert states this week to try to hammer out a joint plan of action for tackling the growing threat from al Qaeda insurgents, officials said.
The insurgents have been kidnapping Westerners and launching bomb attacks, exploiting the Sahara’s vast empty spaces, porous borders and a lack of coordination among the region’s fractious governments.
Algeria’s decision to host the meeting appeared to indicate it was prepared to take a bigger role in the fight against al Qaeda in the Sahara, something most Western governments have been urging it to do for years.
Foreign Ministers from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger will attend the one-day meeting on Tuesday on the outskirts of the Algerian capital.
“There can’t be any development in the Sahel region without peace and security,” Abdelkader Messahel, Algeria’s Minister Delegate for African and Maghreb affairs, told state radio.
The insurgents’ activities in the Sahara have so far been on a small scale, but Western diplomats say they could turn the region into a safe haven along the lines of Somalia or Yemen and use it to prepare major attacks further afield.
The insurgents, who operate as al Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb (AQIM), are believed to be holding two Spanish aid workers who were kidnapped in Mauritania last November, and an Italian couple, who were seized in Mauritania a month later.
Algeria is the region’s biggest economic and military power with years of experience of fighting an Islamist rebellion on its own territory. But it has been reluctant to get involved in tackling al Qaeda beyond its borders.
“We want to see Algeria take the lead in coordinating a regional response to the AQIM problem. This cannot be sorted out piecemeal or it will just push the threat elsewhere in the region,” said a diplomat in the region.
The talks in the Algerian capital will be the first high-level meeting in years among Saharan states that has been devoted to countering the insurgency.
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 to Mali in protest and the Algerian government said Mali’s actions were playing into the hands of the insurgents.
AQIM last year killed a British man, Edwin Dyer, after capturing him on the border between Niger and Mali while he was attending a festival of Tuareg culture.
AQIM also said it 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: Flag of Algeria