Niger's army intercepted a convoy of cars traveling south from Libya toward Mali, and a cache of arms was seized in the ensuing clash, the ministry of defense said Wednesday.
It was not immediately clear if the fighters were part of Moammar Gadhafi's fleeing entourage, but the direction in which the heavily armed convoy was traveling is the same route that was used last month by Gadhafi's intelligence chief, who is believed to be hiding in the remote dunes of Mali.
The statement by Defense Minister Mahamadou Karidio published in local newspapers on Wednesday said that one Nigerien soldier was killed and four wounded during the clash on Sunday.
The army seized two 14.5 mm, and four 12.7 mm machine guns, two ML-49 and three M-80 machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and ammunition, the statement said. The army also found a Thuraya satellite phone and seized six Toyota pickup trucks, as well as several prisoners.
Security experts have warned that arms traffickers could try to pilfer the armories left behind by Gadhafi's retreating army and transport them across the ungoverned desert separating Libya from Niger and Mali. The corridor has been used by arms smugglers and drug traffickers for decades, and is also where an al-Qaida-linked cell operates. Military experts are especially worried about Gadhafi's stockpile of surface-to-air missiles, many of which have an infrared homing device which would allow a fighter to simply aim it in the general direction of a passing plane to take it down.
Earlier this summer, the Niger military clashed with another convoy in the same region, this one loaded with explosives. One of the men driving the convoy told authorities during his subsequent interrogation that they were bringing the explosives from Libya, and were on their way to sell it to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, Karidio told the Associated Press in an interview in September.
Serge Hilpron, the head of Radio Nomad, a radio station that broadcast in the country's north where the incident took place, said that his sources indicated that there were both Libyan nationals and ethnic Tuaregs in the convoy.
"Because of the Libyan problem, there are now traffickers heading to Libya to pick up the arms left behind and to bring them here. These same traffickers then sell the arms to AQIM," he said.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.