France calls for action against Islamists in southern Libya

Reuters News
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Posted: May 28, 2013 11:22 AM
France calls for action against Islamists in southern Libya

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY (Reuters) - France urged African nations on Tuesday to make a concerted effort to tackle a growing Islamist threat in the deserts of southern Libya.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, speaking on a visit to Niger where suicide bombers attacked a French-run uranium mine last week, said there were signs that Libya's lawless south was becoming a safe haven for Islamist groups in the Sahara.

"It seems we must make a special effort on southern Libya - which is also what Libya wants," Fabius said after meeting Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou. "We spoke about the initiatives which neighboring countries can take in liaison with Libya."

A five-month French-led military campaign broke Islamists' hold over the northern two-thirds of Mali, killing hundreds of al Qaeda-linked fighters and pushing others into neighboring states.

Niger has said the Islamists who carried out Thursday's twin attacks on an Areva mine and a military barracks, which killed 25 people had crossed the border from Libya. Tripoli has denied this.

Fabius, who travels to Mali on Tuesday, said efforts to address the problem in southern Libya would need support from Tunisia, Algeria, Chad, Mali and Egypt.

"Since, as is often said, a large part of Libya could act as a refuge for terrorist groups, all of these countries must act together," Fabius said, adding that France would assist them with "lots of determination, lots of solidarity".

Libya has become a weapons smuggling route for al Qaeda militants in the Sahara since Muammar Gaddafi's fall in 2011.

Veteran al Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar acquired arms there and his fighters used it as a transit route before a mass hostage-taking at a gas plant in Algeria in January, security sources say.

Tripoli is struggling to control armed groups which helped topple Gaddafi and now refuse to lay down their weapons. Parliament in December declared the south a military zone but policing its borders remains a huge task for weak state forces.

Last week's attacks in Niger were claimed jointly by Belmokhtar and the MUJWA militant group which formed part of the Islamist coalition which seized northern Mali last year.

France is gradually drawing down the 4,000 troops it deployed in Mali but it will keep 1,000 soldiers there after December as a rapid reaction force to tackle any Islamist threat. It will hand routine security operations to a planned 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission.

(Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)