Concerns Sahel desert will be war zone
Algiers - The Libyan conflict has turned the neighbouring Sahel desert into a powder keg, regional powers said on Wednesday in Algiers, as Muammar Gaddafi arsenal risks being snapped up by al-Qaeda's local franchise.
"The region has been turned into a powder keg," Niger's Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told counterparts from Algeria, Mali and Mauritania - the Sahel nations most threatened by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Sahel security conference, the first of its kind, was decided months ago but convenes only days after the toppling of the 42-year-old Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi by Western-backed rebels.
Algeria and other Libyan neighbours have expressed fears that the ousted Libyan leader's arsenal and remaining loyalists would be scattered across the Sahel, an 8 000 000km² desert area south of the Sahara.
Bazoum said half a tonne of Semtex explosives was seized in Niger in June, warning that there may have been more, as well as surface-to-air missiles.
"We don't want the Sahel to become a war zone," Malian Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye said.
He said that reinforcing security was the region's responsibility but added that outside assistance in the fields of surveillance, intelligence and training was needed.
French, American and British delegates speaking at the conference agreed that the military effort should be led by the region.
"We recognise that this effort must be led by the governments of the region," said Shari Villarosa, from the office of the coordinator for counterterrorism at the US state department.
Deadly attacks as well as kidnappings of foreigners claimed by AQIM have already slashed what little revenue some of the world's poorest nations were getting from tourism.
Influx of weapons
Daniel Benjamin, coordinator for counterterrorism at the US state department, told the Algerian news agency on Tuesday that Washington was "taking seriously all reports about weapons falling into the hands of terrorists and we are doing our best to follow up these reports."
Hundreds of former Tuareg rebels from Niger and Mali who had found refuge in Libya in recent years and fought alongside Gaddafi loyalists this year are crossing back into their countries, raising security fears.
While there is no evidence of strong links between pro-Gaddafi fighters and AQIM, observers fear an influx of weapons from Libya could benefit the al-Qaeda franchise in its desert hideouts.
"The danger is that the combatants returned with weapons. If they have nothing to put in their mouths they will sell these weapons or use them," said Malian political scientist Moussa Diallo.
Other observers argue that has already happened.
The European Union's counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove warned on Monday that the chaos in Libya had given AQIM potential access to new weaponry, including "surface-to-air missiles which are extremely dangerous because they pose a risk to flights over the territory."
Since Osama bin Laden's death this year, experts have argued that while "al-Qaeda Central" was weaker than it has been, its offshoots in Yemen and in North Africa remained potent threats to global security.