A joint command headquarters created to coordinate anti-al Qaeda operations in the Sahara desert will triple the troops at its disposal to 75 000 within two years, Algerian state television says.
Western countries say if decisive action is not taken, al Qaeda insurgents could turn the vast expanses of the Sahara desert into a safe haven along the lines of Somalia or Yemen and use it to launch devastating attacks. After years of squabbling and inaction, the four regional states of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger this month opened a joint military headquarters in the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset, near the area where insurgents operate.
“There are now 25 000 soldiers from several countries at the disposal of Tamanrasset headquarters,” a presenter on state television said. “The figure will reach 75 000 by 2012.” No details have been released on what authority the joint headquarters has been given, and it was not clear if the troops would be under its direct command. The region has no collective security force, with each country acting independently.
Security experts say better regional cooperation is key to containing al Qaeda in the Sahara because insurgents often evade capture by slipping from one country into another. The insurgents in the Sahara have so far not been able to stage any large-scale attacks, but Western diplomats say cash they are accumulating from a series of kidnappings of foreigners will make them a more potent threat.
The militants usually demand ransoms in exchange for freeing the hostages. In the latest kidnapping, a 78-year-old French man and his Algerian driver were seized last week in Niger. No group has so far said it is holding them. The insurgents last year killed a British man, Edwin Dyer, who was kidnapped on the border between Niger and Mali.
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.