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U.S. trains Africans to fight al-Qaida

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, May 18 (UPI) -- U.S., Dutch and Spanish special forces are training African soldiers how to fight al-Qaida in the Sahara as regional states establish a joint counterinsurgency command to coordinate an offensive against the jihadists.

For years, al-Qaida groups have exploited the political and ethnic rivalries between the regional states to dodge from one country to another when things got too hot.

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The Americans and their allies have long urged these governments to join forces against the jihadists or risk have them turn the vast ungoverned spaces in the Sahara into a sanctuary from which to launch large-scale attacks while operating with narcotics smugglers and other criminal elements based in the unpoliced desert wastes.

As the region's military forces finally start working together and the new U.S. Africa Command, which became operational in October 2008, steps up its training program, there are expectations that the pressure will build up on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

The Algerian-led group has an avowedly transnational agenda and seeks to re-establish an Islamic caliphate in the region.

There are some signs that the jihadists are starting to feel the pinch. On Sunday, 19 suspected al-Qaida operatives went in trial in Nouakchott, capital of Arab-majority Mauritania, where the jihadists have carried out a series of attacks over the last two years and have been seeking to recruit members.

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Three of the men are accused of murdering four French tourists who were kidnapped in the desert in 2007.

Two of the alleged ringleaders were arrested in Guinea Bissau, several hundred miles to the south, in January 2008. That's one of several instances where fugitives have been arrested in other countries and extradited.

Most of the suspects have been linked to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of an AQIM group in the Sahara which specializes in kidnapping foreigners for ransom.

His group killed a British hostage, Edwin Dyer, 61, in May 2009 after the British government refused to release a Jordanian jihadist cleric imprisoned on terrorism-related charges.

So far, the jihadists appear defiant in the face of a major offensive against them by seven or eight regional governments, headed by Algeria, which fought Islamist insurgents in a civil war throughout the 1990s.

AQIM posted an audio message on Islamist websites Friday claiming responsibility for kidnapping a 78-year-old Frenchman, Michel Germaneau, in northern Niger on April 22.

The jihadists demanded the release of some of their men held by regional states in return for freeing the retired oil engineer. Dozens of Europeans have been kidnapped in the region since 2003. Most were freed through ransoms totaling $20 million to $30 million.

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The regional effort to crush AQIM got under way in January when Algeria, the regional military heavyweight, unveiled a new strategy designed to interdict the jihadist bands and deny them access to water and supplies in the inhospitable Sahara.

The Algerian army deployed 3,000 troops tasked with running the jihadists ragged, reinforcing some 15,000 soldiers operating along the borders with Niger, Mali and Mauritania.

In March, Algeria hosted a conference attended by ministers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mail, Mauritania and Niger to determine a region-wide security plan "to root out the scourge of the Jihadists."

Following meetings between military and security chiefs, the blueprint for moving against AQIM took shape. The operational center appears to be the Algerian air base at Tamanrasset, deep in the Sahara south of Algiers.

Efforts are under way to remedy the regional forces' lack of surveillance aircraft and transport aircraft and helicopters capable of moving large bodies of troops swiftly to engage the jihadists wherever they are found.

The campaign will likely take some time to get up to speed, and given the history of rivalries between states in the region -- Algeria and Morocco, for instance, have been at odds for three decades over the disputed, mineral-rich Western Sahara -- there may be some bumps along the way.

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But the current military exercise, Operation Flintlock, now under way in West Africa underlines how regional forces are being mobilized to counter the al-Qaida threat.

The exercise, one of several held annually under the U.S. Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership, mainly involves Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. British and French forces are also involved with the Americans, Dutch and Spanish.

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