North Africa to step up battle against Al-Qaeda: source

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North African states are boosting their counter-terrorism cooperation following a meeting with their G8 counterparts on how to battle Islamic militants linked to Al-Qaeda, an official said Thursday.

"The cooperation is in the process of being established," a senior Malian military officer tasked with counter-terrorism told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Experts from G8 members Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States met with their counterparts from Burkina Faso, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal for two days of closed meetings in Bamako that wrapped up on Thursday.

"Nobody can combat terrorism alone," said the Malian officer. "Without real regional cooperation, and in addition to that, on the international level, then we won't be successful."

After staging a wave of attacks on governments in the region, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has recently turned to kidnappings of foreigners.

On September 16 the group seized five French nationals, a Madagascan and a Togolese from an uranium mining town in Niger. It is believed to be holding them in a mountainous desert region in northeastern Mali.

The group exploits the Sahara desert and Sahel scrubland to the south -- a vast area nearly the size of Australia that is difficult to control and covers parts of Algeria, Niger, Mauritania and Mali.

"We are obliged to unite against terrorism," Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure told the meeting's participants on Thursday.

"But security alone cannot resolve the issue," he added, insisting that development of the Sahel region is needed to undercut support for extremist groups.

According to a diplomatic source, the objective of the Bamako conference was to "increase awareness" of the need to step up cooperation and efforts against AQIM.

Despite AQIM carrying out attacks in the region for several years, cooperation on stamping out the group has functioned poorly.

Mali, where AQIM is currently believed to have most of its hideouts, has been accused of by its neighbours of being lax, and has been forced to accept Mauritanian troops entering its territory to go after the militants.

The Malian officer said that following last month's kidnappings Bamako's views about how to deal with AQIM had changed.

The growth of the group's activities is beginning to spur countries of the region towards greater cooperation. A month ago the military commands of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger agreed to set up a joint intelligence centre based in Algiers.

Diplomatic sources said that Algeria, which was also invited, boycotted the talks because it believed that countries outside the region should not be involved in the battle against AQIM.

Canada, which organised the closed-door talks, had asked participants not to speak to the media about the meetings, saying it was too sensitive a topic.

© 2010 AFP

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