Customs officials in Mali say they have intercepted a large stash of weapons destined for Al Qaeda’s north African wing, the Algerian newspaper El Khabar reported on Wednesday.
Reuters reports the weapons seized on Tuesday at a roadblock included mortar bombs and a large quantity of machine guns and ammunition, the newspaper’s Web edition said, citing a senior Malian customs official based in the capital Bamako.
It said the weapons, which were sent from Guinea, constituted “a veritable war arsenal”.
When questioned, the smugglers told Malian officials it was the third time they had transported weapons for the same customer. On previous occasions they had handed over their cargo to light-skinned men in the north of Mali, the newspaper said.
Maghreb Al Qaeda, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), has claimed a series of bombings and attacks in Algeria in recent years.
The group is based in mountainous areas east of Algiers but a southern offshoot vies with Tuareg nomads for control of trafficking routes across the Sahara, a lucrative channel for contraband cigarettes, drugs and weapons.
El Khabar cited Tuareg rebel spokesman Hama Sid Aissa as saying his movement was aware that Islamic militants had forged new arms trafficking links to the Malian capital Bamako.
He said the Islamist rebel group had been financing these networks using funds raised from the ransom of two Austrian tourists it abducted in Tunisia last year.
Some media have reported that a ransom was paid to release the two Austrian hostages in October, despite denials from the Austrian and Malian governments.