The Associated Press
ALGIERS, Algeria — Officials from Saharan countries on Thursday pledged to continue working together in the fight against terrorism, despite Niger's foreign minister telling a local newspaper that cooperation so far has been ineffective.
Foreign ministers from Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania this week met for a two-day conference in Algiers on security challenges across the vast Sahara. Discussions included how to deal with an active branch of al-Qaida that has kidnapped more than a dozen foreigners.
Mohamed Bazoum of Niger, however, noted that to date the four countries' existing joint military body based in the Algerian town of Tamanrasset has been ineffective.
"So far, we have not seen it execute a single concrete operation. We would like CEMOC to carry out concrete actions," he told the independent daily newspaper Liberte, referring to the Committee of Joint Chiefs of the four countries founded in 2010.
Bazoum added that he now hoped to see a much more vigorous joint military presence patrolling in the 3 million square miles (8 million square kilometers) of desert shared by the four countries.
The conference's conclusion — which included high level delegations from France and the United States — saw the countries pledge closer cooperation in the fight against terrorism, as well as plans to develop impoverished communities in the Sahara.
"The Algiers conference lets the countries of the region show their partners abroad that they possess a true strategy and unified vision for their struggle against terrorism, organized crime and poverty," Algeria's minister for North African affairs, Abdelkader Messahel, said at the event's conclusion.
Officials from the four countries were quick to say that their strategy included measures to fight poverty and develop the remote and cash-strapped regions where al-Qaida militants and smugglers reigned supreme.
A French intelligence official in Paris, however, dismissed the conference as "diplomatic posturing," saying that the four are not cooperating in the fight against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb nearly as well as they could.
He spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
AQIM grew out of the armed groups fighting the Algerian government in the 1990s after elections were canceled by the military in 1991 to stave off a victory for an Islamist political party.
The group declared allegiance to al-Qaida in 2006 and changed its name, embarking on a renewed campaign of bombings and kidnappings across the Sahara.
Shari Villarosa, the head of the U.S. delegation to the conference and a member of the State Department's anti-terrorism team, estimated AQIM was comprised of less than 1,000 members.
On Sept. 1, AQIM announced it had killed 29 members of Algeria's security forces between July and August, including 18 killed in twin suicide bombings of the Algerian military academy at Cherchell on Aug. 26.
According to reports cited by the U.S. Embassy in a 2007 cable released by WikiLeaks, the organization has been thriving on ransoms from kidnappings and smuggling routes for guns, cigarettes and drugs through the Sahara.
Algeria, the event's sponsor, also expressed concern over the flood of weapons into the region from Libya's civil war, as well as armed men fleeing rebel advances there.
Moammar Gadhafi relied heavily on Tuareg fighters to supplement his forces and with his defeat, many of them are returning to the impoverished communities in Mali and Niger — potentially destabilizing them.
There are fears that the fighters, having few options, will gravitate toward al-Qaida and its lucrative hostage-taking schemes or join up with smugglers working throughout the region.
Andre Parant, France's representative at the conference and an adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy, emphasized the need for more than just military responses to the situation in the Sahara.
"Just as there can be no development without security, there can be no stability without prosperity," he said in remarks appearing Thursday in the independent daily El Watan. "The difficulty is that development activities are long term, while we are in a hurry."
Paul Schemm reported from Paris. Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.
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