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Armed Conflicts

Libya’s Deserts a Source of Worry for its Neighbours

TRIPOLI, Jun 10 2013 (IPS) - All eyes have turned to Libya since Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou’s statement claiming that recent attacks in north Niger were perpetrated by Malian terrorists based in south Libya.

While some security analysts have claimed that Islamist groups from Mali have set up camp in southern Libya, other experts told IPS that this was impossible.

The director of the Centre for African Studies in Tripoli, Faraj Najem, refuted the presence of Malian terrorists in Libya. He said that Mali did not share a border with Libya, which prevented the movement of fighters into south Libya.

“Tripoli could throw the accusation back on its Algerian and Nigerien neighbours’ doorsteps: if Malian terrorists are in Libya, they would have had to pass through neighbouring countries before arriving here,” Najem told IPS.

The Jihadist group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for two suicide attacks carried out on May 23 at the Agadez military base and the Arlit uranium mine in Niger. They said that the attacks were a punishment for Niger’s support of France’s intervention in Mali.

A coalition of armed Islamist groups allied with Al-Qaeda – composed of AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and Ansar Dine – held northern Mali from early 2012 until a French intervention in January allowed the Malian army to reclaim the north.

And according to the Niger government, the attacks on the country were planned in Libya. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, however, refuted these allegations as “baseless”.

Najem supported Zeidan’s view.

“South-eastern Libya is controlled by the Toubous who do not have any links with Islamist movements. The Tuaregs from Azawad and from Ansar Dine in Mali are wanted in Libya because they fought with pro-Gaddafi troops, and so they can’t return,” Najem said.

Former President Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed in October 2011 after 42 years in power, and a newly elected government was sworn in in November 2012.

“I have no information about a terrorist presence in south Libya,” Hussein Hamed Al-Adsari, a Tuareg member of parliament in Oubari, south-east Libya, told IPS in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

Abu Azoum, a councillor in Fezzan in south Libya, said the case was not clear cut. “I do not believe that the terrorists come from here. At the same time, it is entirely possible that they are getting arms supplies in the south. They are prepared to pay high prices for arms, and there are many weapons in circulation in Libya,” he told IPS.

Agila Majou Ouled, a representative of the Slimane community in Sebha, south Libya, observed that although “the southern borders with Chad, Niger and Sudan have been officially closed” since December 2012, “everybody crosses over as if it’s business as usual.”

He, however, did not believe that there were fighter camps in the south.

“It is possible that terrorists have passed through Libya on their way to Niger from Mali to cover their tracks. But it is not possible that they are still here. Everybody knows everybody in the desert. Any new arrivals are immediately known about,” Majou Ouled told IPS.

A Tripoli-based security analyst believes otherwise. “It is true that the tribes in the south are in full control of their territory. And therefore they know perfectly well that AQIM is on the ground,” he said, speaking anonymously.

His opinion is shared by Samuel Laurent, author of the book “Sahelistan” on the Jihadist movements in the region. “The Tuaregs (who control south-east Libya) harbour Islamic militants. As a general rule the reasons are purely financial rather than ideological,” he wrote, pointing out that “Belmokhtar is a millionaire.”

According to Laurent, who is a security consultant, Malian Islamists set up base in Libya in November 2012, well before the French intervention. “The real core of AQIM have been regrouping in south-east Libya for months,” he told IPS.

In Laurent’s view, unlike the Malian government, Tripoli will never agree to western intervention. “What’s more, thanks to the Gaddafi regime’s former arms caches, weapons are in full circulation. Libya is therefore by far a more profitable haven for terrorists than Mali,” he concluded.

In early June, the government of France and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) offered support to the Libyan government against Al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had been pushed out of northern Mali. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had said that France was “ready” to help Libya “secure its borders” in the south.

On Jun. 4, NATO announced that it would send a team of experts to Libya, but the head of the organisation, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was categorical in stating that the mission was in no way a deployment of ground troops.

Although the Libyan government has requested assistance from NATO and western countries to secure its borders, some members of the government remain wary.

“Intervention by the Libyan army and police in the south is the preferred option,” Al-Adsari said. “Even if these institutions haven’t been fully formed, it is for Libyans to take charge of the situation.”

Majou Ouled added: “I am not comfortable with the idea of external intervention. If the West wants to help us, they should train our army, not come and enforce the law in our territory.”

Speaking at the press conference on Jun. 3, Zeidan announced measures to bolster the Libyan army’s presence. This included raising salaries and benefits to up to 1,200 dollars as an incentive to soldiers and former rebels to agree to work in the difficult southern region of the country.

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