Mali kidnap: Region needs to fight Aqim
Dakar - After the kidnapping of five Europeans and the murder of one other in just 48 hours in Mali, military co-operation in the vast Sahel strip south of the Sahara desert shows it is in need of strengthening.
Incidents involving armed gangs are on the rise in the region, which is home to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim).
On Thursday two Frenchmen were snatched from their hotel in the northern Malian town of Hombori, followed by the abduction of four Europeans - one of whom was killed as he tried to resist - the next day from the ancient city of Timbuktu, a popular tourist haunt.
Aqim has bases in the northern Mali desert from which it organises raids and kidnappings and traffics weapons and drugs.
It also operates in Niger, Mauritania and Algeria.
In April 2010, the four countries where the highest number of Aqim-related incidents have occurred - Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania - formed a Committee of Joint Chiefs (CEMOC), based in the Algerian town of Tamanrasset, to try and combat extremism in the region by coordinating their military operations.
But nearly 18 months later, kidnappings, trafficking and attacks by Aqim are becoming commonplace in the Sahel as CEMOC struggles to create a united force.
The recent arrival of thousands of Muammar Gaddafi loyalists who have fled Libya for Mali and Niger has only added to CEMOC's problems.
In this wild desert region which stretches for thousands of kilometres right across Africa from west to east, it is not hard for gangs and their hostages to remain elusive.
The kidnappers of the two Frenchmen abducted on Thursday are thought to have split into two groups, one heading in the direction of the Burkina Faso border to the south and the other moving north towards Mali's border with Algeria.
But the whereabouts of the Dutchman and Swede abducted on Friday along with a man of British-South African nationality remain unknown.
A total of nine hostages are now being held in the Sahel region and the pressure is on from European governments for local authorities to play their part in securing their release.
CEMOC army chiefs meet every six months but have never yet organised joint patrols.
Internal disagreements within the committee have also impacted on its effectiveness, according to a delegate from Niger at CEMOC's last meeting in the Malian capital of Bamako on November 21 who accused Algeria of not helping its neighbours enough.
"Algeria's army, by itself, has greater means that the armies of Niger, Mauritania and Mali" put together, he said.
"I can't understand why its army isn't deployed to help us fight Aqim."
But Algeria is rattled by any suggestion of including Morocco in the committee's fight against terrorism, a diplomatic source told AFP, and is also annoyed at intervention from its former colonial power France, with whom it maintains a touchy relationship.
"In not fighting together against Aqim, the Sahel countries are giving free reign to terrorists," said a Mauritanian official speaking in Bamako.
But the events of last week could bring about change, said Gilles Yabi, International Crisis Group director in Dakar.
"Everyone realises that this co-operation is needed to tackle these groups", he said.
Mali, now the scene of multiple kidnappings, at least will "act more clearly" henceforth, he added.
Last week Mali's government denounced the spate of abductions as "an attack on the country's security and stability", which "reaffirms [our] determination and unfailing commitment to any action needed to guarantee peace, security and stability".
On Saturday the government chartered a plane to evacuate around 20-odd tourists in Timbuktu and sent its soldiers to join French military in the hunt for the two Frenchmen as the country seeks to mitigate the damage to its tourism industry.
Foreign governments have already started warning their citizens not to travel to Timbuktu, an oasis known as "The Pearl of the Desert" and a World Heritage site renowned for its ancient Islamic architecture.