al Qaeda guards Sahara drug smugglers: Algeria

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Algerian security forces have clashed repeatedly with al Qaeda rebels providing armed security escorts for drug smugglers in the Sahara desert, a senior Algerian official said yesterday.

The comments are fresh evidence of cooperation between al Qaeda’s North African wing and drug smugglers in the Sahara region, a partnership that security officials say could make both groups a more potent threat.
“They (al Qaeda insurgents) provide protection to drug convoys in return for cash.

They know the region very well,” said Colonel Djamel Zeghida, the head of the investigation office with Algeria’s paramilitary police, or gendarmerie.
“They use military weapons such as Kalashnikovs to protect convoys. We clashed with them four times in 2008 and fifteen times in 2009,” Colonel Zeghida told Algerian state radio.

Security officials are particularly concerned that the rebels, who belong to a group called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), could use cash from drug smuggling to recruit new fighters and finance violent attacks.

US officials say traffickers use the Sahara as a staging post for flying illegal drugs from South America into Europe and that AQIM could also tap into the smugglers’ network of aircraft and secret landing strips.

Anti-insurgency officials from Europe and the United States fear that al Qaeda could turn the Sahara region, with its sparely-populated expanses and porous borders, into a safe haven for their activities along the lines of Somalia or Yemen.

Foreign hostages

AQIM has waged a campaign of suicide bombings and ambushes in Algeria but in the past few years has shifted a large part of its activities south to the Sahara desert and the borders with Mali, Niger and Mauritania.

Last year it killed a British tourist, Edwin Dyer, after kidnapping him on the border between Niger and Mali while he was attending a festival of Tuareg culture.

The group 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.

AQIM said it kidnapped Frenchman Pierre Camatte in Mali last year and has also said it is holding three Spaniards and an Italian couple hostage.

It threatened to kill Camatte unless Mali released Islamist prisoners it was holding by Feb. 20. A report in a Mali newspaper at the weekend said a court in Bamako had ordered the prisoners be released.

Pic: Troop in the Sahara desert

Source: www.af.reuters.com