* Niger says attacks on base, mine launched from Libya
* After Mali mission, France scrambles troops to help Niger
* Weak armies, poor regional cooperation to keep West
By David Lewis
BAMAKO, May 31 Suicide attacks on a French-run
mine and a military base in northern Niger have shown how an
Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations of the
Sahara, meaning France may be tied down there for years to come.
Regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for Paris and
its Western allies, with a lack of cooperation between Saharan
countries helping militants to melt away when they come under
pressure and regroup in quieter parts of the vast desert.
Security officials say lawless southern Libya has become the
latest haven for al Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led
forces drove them from strongholds in northern Mali this year,
"The south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like
before," said a senior adviser to Mali's interim President
Diouncounda Traore, asking not to be named.
Niger has said last week's suicide raids, which killed 25
people at the army base and desert uranium mine run by France's
Areva, were launched from Libya. Amid growing
tensions between the two countries, Libya has denied this.
Chad, which played a leading role in the Mali campaign, said
a man was shot dead in an attack on its consulate in the Libyan
desert town of Sabha at the weekend.
Smugglers have long used Libya's poorly patrolled south - a
crossroads of routes to Chad, Niger and Algeria - for
trafficking drugs, contraband cigarettes and people to Europe.
But the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 flooded the
Sahara with pillaged weapons and ammunition. Tuareg separatists
used them to seize power in northern Mali, only to be ousted by
even better-armed Islamists who set up training camps and
imposed harsh Islamic law until the French forces arrived.
The Islamists have also exploited Libya's weakness. Veteran
al Qaeda commander Moktar Belmokhtar bought weapons there after
Gaddafi's fall and his fighters passed through southern Libya to
carry out a mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in
January, in which 37 foreigners died.
A spokesman for the MUJWA, an al Qaeda-linked group which
controlled parts of Mali last year, told Mauritania's al Akhbar
news site that the Niger attack was not prepared in southern
Libya. But Belmokhtar's group said it also took part.
With no effective national army, Libya relies on local
brigades to police its southern border region where at least 100
people died in ethnic violence last year. Tripoli's failure to
restore security there may be encouraging permanent Islamist
camps and weapons stores, security officials say.
France, which relies on neighbouring Niger for one fifth of
the uranium powering its nuclear reactors, has urged regional
powers to cooperate to tackle the threat from Libya.
"We're extremely concerned that what's happening in southern
Libya could replicate what happened in Mali," a French
diplomatic source said, adding that the defence minister had
raised the issue on a recent visit to Washington and London.
"Dealing with that problem needs to be fast-tracked."
Paris is keen to cut its troop numbers in the region. But,
amid persistent bickering and mistrust among regional powers,
President Francois Hollande admitted last week that French
forces may have be used elsewhere in the Sahel.
Alarmed European governments also approved a 110-man mission
this week to improve border security by training Libyan police
and security forces. But Paris feels this is
being deployed too slowly, given the urgency of the situation.
"As much as the West may wish to leave the problem to
Africans, it cannot," said Vicki Huddleston, a former U.S.
ambassador to Mali. "Islamists will continue to fight until
defeated by the region working together and supported by Western
LACK OF COOPERATION
Borders often have little meaning in a desert where
militants can blend in with nomads, and hunting Islamists
requires states riven by mutual suspicion to work together.
Algeria, the Sahara's main military power, has long bristled
at the idea of outside intervention in the region, particularly
one led by its former colonial ruler, France.
It allowed French war planes operating in Mali to fly over
its territory. But the Malian official said Algeria had to be
more active, whether by arresting militants or preventing the
flow of fuel that allows them to cover vast desert distances -
the northern Mali town of Gao lies about 1,500 km (930 miles)
from the border of southern Libya.
"Algeria's cooperation is essential but they are not on the
frontline," he said.
Mauritania also needed to do more because of its strategic
location on the western edge of the Sahara, the high number of
its citizens who are senior militants, and its experience in
tackling Islamists at home, he said.
U.S. officials said efforts to tackle the spreading
influence of al Qaeda's Sahara branch had been beset by
long-standing rivalries, notably between Morocco and Algeria,
and a lack of trust and communication between regional capitals.
Plans to set up a Saharan anti-terrorist command centre in
southern Algeria never materialised. A low point, officials in
Mali's interim government say, was reached in 2011 when senior
figures in the previous administration leaked the positions of
Mauritanian troops attacking al Qaeda bases in Mali.
Relations between Mali and Mauritania had already soured in
2010 when Bamako released a Mauritanian al Qaeda commander in
return for a kidnapped hostage, prompting Nouakchott to recall
The changing face of Islamist militancy creates particular
problems for governments. For years Al Qaeda's North African
wing AQIM relied largely on Algerians but they were joined last
year by gunmen from across northern and parts of West Africa.
The MUJWA group includes more black Africans better able to
drift unnoticed between West African nations since France's
onslaught. "They have deployed to other theatres," said
Soumeylou BouBeye Maiga, a former Malian foreign minister and
security chief. "They will take on France elsewhere as there is
a concentration of forces here."
Niger's long border with Mali, tough line on tackling the
militants and role as a supplier of uranium to France have long
made it a target. U.S. troops are training the army and Niamey
has stepped up security in the north, where French Special
Forces went this year to protect mines. Four French mine workers
seized in Arlit in 2010 are still being held.
U.N. conflict expert Ismael Diallo said France, which had
originally ruled out using ground troops in Mali, was gradually
being dragged deeper into policing the region.
"France has no choice," said Diallo, a former senior
official in Burkina Faso. "Regional cooperation will not improve
soon enough and to a credible level to deter the armed groups."
"WE ARE WATCHING"
In Mali, drone surveillance and counter-terrorism teams on
the ground have done much to stifle the militants. Suicide
attacks around the northern towns of Gao and Menaka this month
claimed no victims apart from the bombers themselves.
According to French officials, about 600 Islamists have been
killed in "Operation Serval", named after a desert wildcat.
About 200 tonnes of ammunition and dozens of vehicles were
seized in operations that scoured desert and mountain bases,
disrupting arms and fuel dumps that the Islamists prepared
during their nine-month occupation of northern Mali.
"They don't seem to have the ability to coordinate attacks
in Mali anymore," said a French officer in Mali. "We assume that
they will try to regroup but it will take time for them and it
is risky as they know we are watching."
French operations have been backed by a British spy plane
and U.S. drones operating from Niger alongside an established
monitoring base in Burkina Faso.
But Islamists who once travelled in large convoys have
adapted and are keeping a low profile. "At any given time, they
could be anywhere," said a U.S. official. "People go where the