A desert chief with al-Qaida's North Africa branch has confirmed fears that his terror organization procured weapons from stockpiles left unguarded in Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar was quoted by the private Mauritanian newspaper Nouakchott Infos and its online version Nouakchott Information Agency as saying that "it's totally natural we benefited from Libyan arms in such conditions."
The interview published Wednesday did not specify the types or quantity of arms involved. The executive editor of the paper, Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Aboulmaaly, who carried out the interview, said he spoke with Belmokhtar by telephone, but refused to give his location.
The report could not be independently confirmed.
Western leaders, joined by the U.N. Security Council, have expressed concern that vast supplies of now free-floating weaponry could end up in the hands of the al-Qaida franchise in North Africa, which roams in bands over the desert Sahel region stretching from Mauritania to Chad. Porous borders and weak governments make the area impossible to police.
They have called on Libyan transitional leaders to track down the arms and secure stockpiles and asked neighboring governments to do all they can to stop their proliferation. There is special concern over shoulder-fired missiles. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro said in October that Libya was believed to have about 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles in its arsenals before civil war began in March. He said terrorist groups have expressed interest in obtaining some of the missiles, which "could pose a threat to civil aviation."
Belmokhtar, who goes by the name of Khaled Abou Al-Abass in the interview, is one of several chiefs of the southern arm of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
AQIM, once concentrated in Algeria, where it is based, has rendered huge swaths of Mauritania, Mali and Niger off-limits to foreigners. The southern warlords are best known for kidnapping Westerners for ransom and are currently holding four French hostages, kidnapped in Niger in September 2010.
"As to profiting from the Libyan arsenal, it's totally natural we benefited from Libyan arms in such conditions," Belmokhtar was quoted as saying. "But," he added, "the most important for us is to see this arsenal return to the hands of the Libyan people in general ... because these arms were the force by which these regimes struck their own people," an apparent reference to neighboring countries like Tunisia and Egypt whose leaders were toppled in so-called Arab Spring uprisings.
Belmokhtar, an Algerian, denied reports that al-Qaida fought alongside combatants who ousted Gadhafi _ with the critical help of a NATO air campaign.
He countered claims that the Arab Spring may weaken al-Qaida affiliates like AQIM, saying that "it is the mujahedeen (holy warriors) of al-Qaida who were generally the greatest benefactors of the revolutions of the Arab world."
Experts say that AQIM thrives on various kinds of trafficking, particularly in drugs. However, Belmokhtar, as quoted by the Nouakchott Information Agency, dismissed such reports as "deliberately made to deform the image of the Mujahedeen,"
The sale and traffic of drugs is "forbidden by the laws of Allah," he said.
Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.