Niger seeks help over Libya arms fallout

NIAMEY, Niger, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- Niger, one of the world's poorest nations, is appealing for help to combat a surge of militants and weapons it fears will pour in from neighboring Libya to destabilize the country.

These are most likely to be men who fought for Moammar Gadhafi and who could terrorize the impoverished and largely ungovernable states across the Sahara Desert and the semi-arid Sahel region.


But amid warnings that al-Qaida's North African affiliate is extending its operational zone across the vast region, the greatest fear is that the large amount of weapons looted from Gadhafi's armories during Libya's six-month civil war will make their way to Niger and its neighbors.

These countries are already grappling with jihadist groups and are increasingly looking to Western powers, the United States and France in particular, to help them counter the threats.


So far as is known, there has been no large-scale migration of known jihadists into Niger. But the desert border is porous and poorly guarded and Libya's Islamist fighters have made considerable political gains in the war against Gadhafi.

Niger's justice minister, Marou Amadou, claimed last week that 200,000 people had crossed from Libya in recent days.

That's probably an overstatement but regional officials involved in counterinsurgency operations against al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the main jihadist group in the region, say they are concerned that it will become the beneficiary of the weapons hemorrhage.

"The worst of the situation is not the Libyan people coming over but the weapons crossing into Niger," Amadou said.

"The threat is not only to our governments (in the region) but above all to European countries."

Large amounts of weapons, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, purchased by Gadhafi's regime during his 42 years in power are unaccounted for.

Many of these were undoubtedly seized by Libyan rebel forces, which include Islamist militants. Western intelligence officials fear that thousands of these weapons may end up in the hands of AQIM forces across the region.

Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou has warned that Libya could become another Somalia, spreading instability across the region.


"The Libyan crisis amplifies the threats confronting countries in the region," the newsmagazine Jeune Afrique quoted him as saying.

"We were already exposed to the fundamentalist threat, to the menace of criminal organizations, drug traffickers, arms traffickers … Today all those problems have increased," Issoufou lamented.

"All the more so because weapons depots have been looted in Libya and such weapons have been disseminated throughout the region. Yes, I'm very worried: We fear that there may be a breakdown of the Libyan state, as was the case in Somalia, eventually bringing to power religious extremists."

Tuareg tribesmen, hired by the hundreds by Gadhafi, are seen as a particular threat. The Tuareg have been involved in rebellions in Niger and other countries in recent years and the return of seasoned fighters from Libya could ignite those insurgencies again.

AQIM units in Niger, Mali and elsewhere have alliances with the Tuareg and that could spell trouble in the months ahead.

Reports from Bamako, Mali's capital, say veteran Tuareg rebel chieftain Ibrahim Ag Bahanga shipped large quantities of heavy and light weapons back to Mali for his tribal allies before he was killed in Libya Aug. 26.

"There are concerns about the dispersal of his arms, which would certainly be of interest to buys from AQIM," observed analyst Andrew McGregor, who specializes in Islamic affairs.


"The direction of Tuareg military commanders and their followers, whether in support of the Gadhafi regime or in renewed rebellion in Niger and Mali, will play an essential role in determining the security future of the region, as well as the ability of foreign commercial interests to extract the region's lucrative oil and uranium resources," he said.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has warned that Libya's in danger of falling into the grip of Islamist extremists if the disparate rebel forces that ousted Gadhafi do not soon establish a stable government capable of maintaining security and order.

"We can't exclude the possibility that extremists will try to exploit a situation and take advantage of a power vacuum," he declared Sept. 11.

There are already worrying signs that the rebel leadership is divided on many issues, including the role of Islamist militias which were involved in much of the fighting against Gadhafi's loyalists.

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