afrol News, 20 April - Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger are creating a joint special military command to fight terrorism across their vast desert territories. The remarkable deal especially targets al Qaeda activities in the Sahara, including in Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad.
The little publicised deal was already outlined at a meeting of the four Saharan nation's military commanders in Tamanrasset in August 2009. Tamanrasset is the Sahara desert's major town of 90,000 inhabitants in southern Algeria, located on the major trans-Saharan trade route but an unsafe destination in the 1990s and early 2000s due to terrorism and banditry.
Today it was announced in Algiers that a new military summit had taken place in Tamanrasset, including representatives from Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad. The original four-nation security deal was widened to partly include troops from these three newcomers.
According to Algerian government sources, the joint anti-terrorism force will be set up already next week and headquartered in Tamanrasset. Formally named the "Joint operational military committee," the joint command will include officers from all the seven Saharan-Sahelian countries.
It is confirmed that the aim of the joint command will be to fight terrorism in the vast region. It is in particular a group claiming to be attached to al Qaeda that is causing concern in the Sahara desert, standing behind several hostage-taking operations and attacks on isolated military posts.
The sparse but existing terrorism activity in the region is seriously halting the economic development in this remote region. Trade, transport and tourism are still below their peak in the 1980s due to insecurity.
Authorities are however providing very limited information about the organisation and size of the joint anti-terrorism operation. It is not known whether there will be a specific joint troop force under its command, whether troops will be able to cross borders and how the political control of the new entity will function.
No budgets or other figures for the joint command. It also remains unsure whether Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger are to lead the command, with Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad joining as observers, or whether the seven countries are full and equal members.
The Tamanrasset deal can nevertheless be seen as a major diplomatic victory for Algeria in the region, given the Algerian-Moroccan rivalry for influence in Niger, Mali and Mauritania. It comes after Algerian relations with its southern neighbours had somewhat soured and Morocco was achieving quickly improving relations with the new regimes in Niger and Mauritania.
The Algerian-Moroccan rivalry is strongly related with the Western Sahara conflict, where Morocco is seeking recognition of its occupation of the territory while Algeria backs and houses the exiled Western Sahara government.
The rivalry has strongly complicated regional cooperation on hot issues such as economic union and a response to terrorism. A Maghreb union never left the sketching desk and Morocco refused to join the African Union over Western Sahara's membership. Also yesterday's Tamanrasset deal excluded Morocco.
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