Sahara-region states must work together to fight an emerging alliance of Islamist militants and drug traffickers with South American links, the head of a regional body said.
Western governments believe that al Qaeda-linked insurgents and drug smugglers using the politically volatile and sparsely populated Sahara as a safe haven are forging ties which could make both groups a more potent threat.
Disputes among regional governments have hampered efforts to mount a coordinated response, frustrating the United States and the European Union, which fear the region could become a launching pad for al Qaeda attacks elsewhere.
“The most important issue is the lack of security and smuggling, especially drug smuggling which has now crossed into our region from South America,” Mohamed Al-Madani Al-Azhari, Secretary-General of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, told Reuters in an interview.
“It seems that there is coordination and cooperation between smugglers and those extremists who practice terrorism and kidnap foreigners,” he said after a meeting of the organisation’s executive council in the Libyan capital.
“We have to face all of this frankly,” said Al-Azhari, who is Libyan.
“Stability is a central issue because in the absence of stability we cannot have development.”
The United States has responded to the al Qaeda threat by sending troops to take part in what it calls training and assistance programmes in some of the region’s states.
But some of the bigger powers in the Sahara, led by Libya and Algeria, are resisting Western military involvement.
Al-Azhari said his organisation would coordinate efforts to “lay down a complete and comprehensive strategic plan to fight the lack of security and to not allow the foreign intervention which has begun to appear in our region”.
US officials have said traffickers use the Sahara region as a staging post for flying illegal drugs from South America into Europe and that Al Qaeda militants could tap into the smugglers’ network of aircraft and secret landing strips.
A group called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped a Frenchman and three Spaniards in the Sahara late last year. It has said it will kill the French hostage by the end of this month unless Mali frees four al Qaeda prisoners.
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.
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.
Senior foreign ministry officials from the Community of Sahel-Saharan States’ 28-member countries met in Tripoli to coordinate their positions before a summit of the African Union to take place in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa that began yesterday.
Saharan states for more than a year have been planning a regional conference to map out a joint response to the al Qaeda threat, but the gathering has been postponed repeatedly.
Disputes among neighbouring countries including long-running rows between Chad and Sudan and Algeria and Morocco have blocked efforts to hammer out a joint approach.
Pic: Solider of the Sahara dessert