Tuaregs ready to hunt down Al-Qaeda and hostages in Mali

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Former Tuareg rebels say they are ready to join Malian troops to drive Al-Qaeda-linked fighters from the north African desert where they are believed to be holding seven foreign hostages.

"We're just waiting for the Malian government to give us the green light to chase Al-Qaeda from our desert," said a former Tuareg rebel, who like many others is waiting for the formation of special military units.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on September 16 kidnapped five French nationals, a Madagascan and a Togolese from a uranium mining town in Niger. It is believed to be holding them in a mountainous desert region in northeastern Mali.

Following the kidnapping, France deployed 80 soldiers in Niger to try to find where the hostages were being held. But President Amadou Toumani Toure said in an interview last week that Paris had not asked to station any troops or conduct operations in Mali.

AQIM has been exploiting the vast tracts of the Sahara desert and the Sahel scrubland to the south, carrying out attacks in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria.

The Malian government has kept a relatively low security posture in the north of the country since reaching peace with the traditionally nomadic Tuaregs in 2006, but the peace deal does foresee the creation of special military units of former rebels serving under regular army commanders.

Tuareg special military units could prove to be an effective means against AQIM in the Sahara and Sahel because they know the region well, said one official on the committee overseeing the implementation of the peace agreement.

"It is their home. These are former fighters who can count on the local populations for intelligence" on what AQIM is up to, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Some 1.5 million Tuaregs live in the Sahara and Sahel regions that stretch across Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso.

A small number of armed Tuaregs are believed to be working in league with AQIM, and there are even suspicions that Tuaregs may have been involved in the kidnapping of the seven workers from the Niger uranium-mining town.

But most Tuaregs are against the Al-Qaeda offshoot and many are itching to take them on.

"We are ready and waiting. We'll solve the problem in a couple of weeks," said Ahmed Ag Acherid, one of a hundred or so former Tuareg fighters waiting for the special military units to be formed.

"AQIM wants to dirty the image of our region. We aren't going to accept that," said Ahmada Ag Bibi, once the spokesman for Tuareg rebels and now a parliamentary deputy.

AQIM fighters "often seek shelter on our land, and we know the terrain. If we were armed we could easily take care of them," he added.

Calling AQIM fighters "thugs", the former rebel said kidnapping civilians and women was un-Islamic.

An official in the Kidal regional administration said the creation of the special military units should be launched in several weeks.

"The creation of special units should be sped up," said Ursule Tekiane, who runs a non-governmental organisation helping children in northern Mali.

"These Tuareg former rebels don't have any work.

"Apart from the fact that they are also defending their country, it is also a way of keeping them busy, so they won't go and fill the ranks of armed gangs which are numerous in the desert," she said.

Before disarming under the peace agreements reached last decade the Tuaregs were the source of consirable instability in the region.

© 2010 AFP

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