NIAMEY (Reuters) - Over 1,000 soldiers from 18 African and Western nations launched a U.S. organized counter-terrorism training exercise in Niger on Wednesday aimed at improving security capabilities across Africa's Sahara-Sahel zone.
The exercise, organized by U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, seeks to bolster cross-border cooperation in a poor, arid region where a mix of al Qaeda-linked Islamists, local insurgents and organized criminal gangs operate.
Weak armies and regional rivalries have long dogged efforts to improve cooperation. The 2012 occupation of Mali's north by a mix of separatist and Islamist forces underscored the region's fragility.
"Terrorism has no limits. It is global," Karidio Mahamadou, Niger's defense minister, said at the launch at a military base in the capital Niamey.
"We need to pool our efforts and resources to tackle this threat hindering the development of our countries," he added.
The annual training exercise was established in 2005 and rotates between African nations. Canada, France, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands and Norway are among the Western nations sending troops to work with regional armies during three weeks of training.
Niger borders Mali, where France had to dispatch thousands of troops last year to halt an Islamist advance and where French and U.N. troops are helping to restore state authority over the desert north.
Niamey fears Islamists scattered from Mali have moved into Algeria and Libya, its neighbors to the north.
Meanwhile, Niger said its security forces last month arrested militants from Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgency planning to attack Nigerien interests, highlighting the threat on its southern flank.
Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalaki; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Joe Bavier