PARIS (Reuters) - Niger’s foreign minister urged major powers on Thursday to act against Islamist militants who had found shelter in Libya’s vast southern desert and, he said, posed a growing threat to neighbouring countries.
Mohamed Bazoum, in Paris to meet his French counterpart Laurent Fabius, said Niger had information that Islamists who had been driven out of northern Mali by a French-led intervention force were setting up bases in Libya’s lawless south.
“We always thought there were two areas that needed to be dealt with: Mali and Libya,” Bazoum told Reuters in an interview.
“Mali has been settled, but Libya is far from being resolved, and today we think Libya is one of the biggest international terrorism bases.”
The Libyan government, already struggling to impose security two years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, has said it is worried about an influx of the al Qaeda-linked fighters who had seized control of Mali’s northern two-thirds last year.
Several Islamist and separatist rebel groups have already taken advantage of the chaos in Mali, and the ‘Arab Spring’ overthrow of Gaddafi and other autocrats, to build up their arsenals and move freely back and forth over the unsecured borders of North and West Africa.
Niger, which adjoins Libya to the south and has also fought Islamists at home, contributed troops to a U.N.-mandated African force in Mali. It also hosts French and U.S. military personnel on its soil.
“Southern Libya is not under the control of the state and we have information that suggests that a certain number of jihadists are now in this area,” Bazoum said.
The Malian crisis was itself in part triggered by an influx of tribal fighters armed by Gaddafi after France, Britain, the United States and others helped rebels to overthrow him.
Bazoum said the major powers that had played a role in ousting Gaddafi and as a consequence destabilising the region had to ensure that stability and democracy prevailed in Libya.
“It’s Libya as a whole and the south especially,” he said. “I don’t feel there is a great effort by the international community to stabilise Libya.”
Another of Libya’s neighbours, Chadian President Idriss Deby, last week accused it of letting mercenaries intent on destabilising Chad set up a training camp - an accusation Libyan authorities denied.
France, Britain, Turkey and other countries are providing technical support and equipment to help Libya secure its borders, and the European Union is sending a mission in June to train Libyan border personnel.
France convened delegations in February in Paris from the United States, Britain, Arab nations, the United Nations and European Union to discuss ways to stabilise Libya, though nothing tangible appeared to have been decided.
“As long as the Libyan state is a state that is unable to control its borders, there is a risk,” Bazoum said. “These bases, because they are terrorists’, they will be a threat for Libya’s immediate neighbours.”
Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Kevin Liffey