Mali fears as Tuaregs return from Libya
Bamako - More than 400 armed Tuaregs have arrived in Mali from neighbouring Libya where they fought in the army of ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi, prompting regional security concerns, officials said on Sunday.
The Libyan nationals of Malian origin crossed into northern Mali aboard a 78-vehicle convoy on Saturday "with weapons and luggage", a Malian security source said.
The repatriation of hundreds of fighters is "a serious worry", UN special envoy to west Africa Said Djinnit told reporters on Friday. The men arrived "in confusion, with big re-entry problems, which has increased the insecurity in the north of Mali".
He added: "Heavy weapons, missiles, convoys of hundreds of vehicles, including technicals [armed 4x4s] circulating freely ... are commonplace. There are potential buyers for these weapons: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [and] drug rings."
Fueling this concern, hundreds of the new arrivals immediately set off for the open desert, an aide to Malian army Colonel Aladji Gamou said, adding that this was "not a good sign".
They were members of two of the three Tuareg tribes in the lawless region - the Shamanamas and Iforas.
Members of the third tribe, the Imghads, who rode in around 50 of the vehicles, have been billeted at a site near the northeastern city of Kidal at the initiative of Malian soldiers and civilians from the same tribe, the aide said.
The Malian government, together with local leaders, have set up basic infrastructures to facilitate the return of Malian Tuaregs, whose loyalty to Gaddafi stemmed from his earlier support for their rebellions.
Keep them busy
Hundreds of other Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger have crossed back into their home countries since the collapse of Gaddafi's regime in August.
Most had gone to Libya in the 1990s and became part of the army, granted Libyan nationality.
According to a security official and a support group, hundreds of Malian civilians have also returned recently, mainly to the region of Timbuktu.
Ould Mohamed of Stop Arms, an NGO that is active against the proliferation of arms in the Sahel, said he believed the returnees could also include mercenaries recruited at the beginning in mid-February of the rebellion against Gaddafi.
"We must rapidly find them something to do, so that they are not tempted by adventure," Ould Mohamed warned.
The general staff of Mali's army has ordered that former fighters who return with their weapons be "gently disarmed".