By REUTERS | Published: September 26, 2010
ALGIERS (Reuters) — Military chiefs from four Saharan countries met Sunday to set out a joint strategy for fighting Al Qaeda’s North African wing, which is holding seven foreigners hostage in the Sahara Desert.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb seized the expatriate workers, including five French citizens, from a uranium mining town in Niger this month in an operation that suggested it posed a growing threat to security in the resource-rich region.
A French presidential spokesman said Sunday that the seven hostages had been moved from Niger to neighboring Mali and that France would consider negotiating with the hostage takers for the captives’ release.
The military chiefs of staff from Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger were meeting in Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria, where earlier this year they set up a joint headquarters to coordinate the fight against Al Qaeda in the Sahara.
An Algerian Defense Ministry statement said the meeting was to exchange information and establish a joint strategy for tackling Al Qaeda and organized crime.
It was not clear if the talks touched on the seven hostages, who also include a citizen of Togo and someone from Madagascar.
But an Algerian military spokesman, Col. Mabrouk Sebaa, said the meeting came at “an opportune moment with regard to the succession of events that have taken place in the region.”
The countries sent “a clear message of their will and determination, as well as their effective capacity, to handle their security issues in an autonomous and collective way, with complete freedom and sovereignty,” Colonel Sebaa said, according to Algeria’s official APS news agency.
Algeria fiercely opposes Western military forces’ taking any role in the Sahara, saying that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a problem the region’s countries must tackle themselves.
Algeria is pressing its neighbors to take a more coordinated approach to tackling militants and to stop paying ransoms and releasing jailed militants in return for hostages’ freedom.
French commandos and Mauritanian troops staged an unsuccessful raid in July to try to free a 78-year-old French hostage, Michel Germaneau, but did not find him. He was executed soon after, prompting France to say it was “at war” with Al Qaeda.
The lack of a unified approach among Saharan and European countries has “facilitated the business of kidnapping foreigners for ransoms,” said a security expert in Algeria.