Niger's minister of defense denied on Friday that his country had seized the dangerous surface-to-air missiles left behind by Moammar Gadhafi's retreating army, which military experts now fear are being sold to terrorist organizations that operate in the Sahel.
"We have not found any surface-to-air missiles yet," Minister of Defense Mahamadou Karidio told The Associated Press by telephone from Niamey, the capital of landlocked Niger.
Niger is one of the world's poorest countries which shares a massive border with Libya. It is through this ungoverned desert border that three of Gadhafi's generals, one of his sons and his chief of intelligence fled in convoys escorted by ethnic Tuaregs, the traditional inhabitants of the Sahara who fought alongside Gadhafi.
The stretch of desert separating Libya from Niger and Mali has also been used by arms smugglers and drug traffickers for decades.
On Sunday, Niger's military intercepted a convoy and found two 14.5 mm and four 12.7 mm machine guns, two ML-49 and three M-80 machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and belts of ammunition, Karidio said. The army also found a Thuraya satellite phone and seized six Toyota pickup trucks, and took hold of several prisoners.
"What we have found are caliber 14.5-mm machine guns, and also 12.7. And we found 14.5 and 12.7 cassettes of ammunition on belts," Karidio said.
Military experts are concerned about Gadhafi's stockpile of SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, a shoulder-fired weapon that can be hidden in a PVC tube and looks like a rolled-up poster, said Africa expert Peter Pham, the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center.
Not unlike the 'stinger' missiles that allowed the Afghans to take down Soviet planes, the SA-7s usually have an infrared red sensor on them, allowing fighters to aim them in the general direction of a passing plane. The weapon is powerful enough to take down a commercial jet in mid-flight.
Experts worry that the hundreds of surface-to-air missiles left behind by Gadhafi's fleeing military are being sold to terrorist groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa.
In an interview that appeared on Thursday in the private Mauritanian newspaper Nouakchott Infos, one of the leaders of the al-Qaida affiliate said his terror organization had procured weapons from the stockpiles left unguarded in Libya, but he did not specify what kind.
"It's totally natural we benefited from Libyan arms in such conditions," Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the chiefs of the group, was quoted as saying.
In March, the President of neighboring Chad told French weekly Jeune Afrique that he was "100 percent sure" that the al-Qaida affiliate which operates in Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria, had gotten their hands on Gadhafi's surface-to-air missiles.
Meanwhile, Niger's president said that his army has clashed repeatedly with arms traffickers from neighboring Libya, underlining the security threat posed by the fall of Gadhafi's regime.
"We are very worried because this crisis will destabilize the whole region," President Mahamadou Issoufou told reporters during a visit to South Africa.
Issoufou said Niger and its West African neighbors already face violence from Islamist extremists, and now he's also worried about armed Gadhafi loyalists at large.
Gadhafi's son, al-Saadi, fled to Niger in September. Issoufou said al-Saadi Gadhafi and other Libyans were being treated as refugees. Another Gadhafi son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, is believed to be in the vast, hard-to-police desert regions where Libya and Niger meet. Seif al-Islam is wanted by the International Criminal Court for allegedly organizing and ordering attacks in Libya that killed civilians during the revolt against Gadhafi.
Niger's Issoufou said Friday he did not know Seif al-Islam's whereabouts.
Issoufou said Gadhafi's fall has had social and economic consequences as well as a security fallout. He said 250,000 Nigeriens who had been working in Libya _ and sending money to their families _ have returned since the unrest there.
Associated Press writer Donna Bryson in Pretoria, South Africa contributed to this report.