* Former insurgent says army officers sold weapons to rebels
* Says Qaeda uses ransom money to bribe officials, tribes
* Mali official says allegations unreliable, "inflammatory"
By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, Aug 12 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda insurgents behind the kidnap of Westerners in the Sahara desert have forged alliances with corrupt officials and local tribes who sell them weapons and help them evade capture, a senior ex-militant told Reuters.
The former insurgent said he had witnessed officials in Mali’s government drinking tea in al Qaeda’s desert camps on courtesy visits to one of the group’s leaders, and Malian army officers selling the rebels Kalashnikov rifles.
Security experts say al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is using the Sahara desert, with its vast empty spaces and weak government presence, as a safe haven from which to kidnap foreigners and, potentially, attack major Western targets.
France’s prime minister said last month his country was at war with the group after it killed Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old Frenchman it was holding hostage. French commandos joined local troops in a failed raid to free the hostage.
The former insurgent, an Algerian who was an Islamist militant for 12 years before his arrest in 2006, painted a picture of the rebels moving around with relative freedom and protected by a local network of informers and suppliers whose loyalty they bought with ransom money.
In one incident, he said a Malian military officer gave AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar two heavy machine guns in exchange for a Toyota utility vehicle, and then, when one of the guns broke, he came back to their camp to repair it.
"To local tribes in Mali and Niger, Belmokhtar is more popular than their presidents. He offers jobs and food," said the insurgent, who for the last three years before his arrest lived in the group’s Sahara desert camps.
The man’s account is significant because it shows that al Qaeda insurgents in the Sahara — in the same way as their fellow militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan — are deeply entrenched in their host countries and so difficult to root out.
The insurgent, who was in charge of AQIM’s external relations and liaised between its regional leaders, asked not to be identified because he said he feared reprisals from his former colleagues for revealing how they operate.
A former Algerian security official who was closely involved in operations against AQIM, including in the Sahara, confirmed the man’s background to Reuters and said his story was accurate.
Mali’s government declined requests from Reuters to provide a formal comment on the former insurgent’s account.
One Malian official, who did not want to be identified, said: "In order for us to respond, Reuters must first give us proof of who this person claims to be."
"It is easy for anyone, even a simple bandit who wants to make some money, to claim to be a former fighter, the right-hand man of whoever, in order to tarnish people with serious, or inflammatory, accusations."
Algeria is keen to promote its view of how AQIM should be tackled in the Sahara. That includes no Western military intervention and an end to what it sees as collusion between the insurgents and some officials in neighbouring states.
The former rebel said most of his time in the desert was spent in the camp of Belmokhtar, one of two main AQIM field commanders in the Sahara and nicknamed "the diplomat" by fellow militants for his ability to build alliances.
Belmokhtar is responsible for most of the kidnappings of foreigners and, security experts say, is the architect of the group’s support network in the desert.
The former insurgent said Belmokhtar used the revenue from smuggling and ransom payments — amounts which analysts say run to several million dollars — to establish cordial ties with senior Malian officials.
"Malian officials used to visit Khaled and drink tea with him," said the source, who referred to Belmokhtar by his nom de guerre, Khaled Abou El Abass. The source said he was in the camp on one occasion when the officials visited.
AQIM’s sphere of operations in the Sahara straddles a vast area that includes parts of southern Algeria, northern Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
The former insurgent said that Malian military officers would visit the camp to sell Belmokhtar weapons.
"You can have a Kalashnikov for 60,000 (Algerian) dinars ($800), and a heavy machine gun for 2 million Algerian dinars," said the 36-year-old ex-militant.
He said that on one occasion, which he had witnessed, a Malian officer had come to the camp and sold Belmokhtar two "Dushka" heavy machine guns.
Dushka is a commonly used nickname for the Russian-made DShK heavy machine gun. It is usually mounted on a vehicle and can be configured for use as an anti-aircraft weapon.
"I remember that this officer did not get money for the Dushka he sold us but a four-wheel drive Toyota," said the source, who joined the insurgents in the beginning of 1990s.
He said that a few days later one of the DShK guns stopped working and the Malian officer who had sold it returned to the camp where he carried out repairs.
The episode touches on one of Western diplomats’ biggest concerns about AQIM in the Sahara. They say if the group obtains shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, they could be used to try to bring down a passenger aircraft as it takes off or lands.
The former Algerian security official said he had similar information about weapons from the Malian military being sold to AQIM militants.
The former insurgent said one of the reasons for Belmokhtar’s survival was his ability to win over local tribes in Mali and Niger.
Belmokhtar, an Algerian who married a woman from an influential Saharan tribe, has been able to exploit desert dwellers’ fragile loyalty to their governments, a product of weak central rule, endemic poverty and ethnic divisions.
The source said he had witnessed desperately poor local tribesmen coming to Belmokhtar’s camp to ask for jobs so they could feed their families.
"We hired some of them, but we never appoint them to top positions. Only Algerians were in top positions," he said.
Belmokhtar built an overlapping network among cigarette smugglers, whose trade is an important source of income for Saharan tribes, the former insurgent said.
"Cigarette smugglers are also close to Belmokhtar, who has never tried to bother them. In return, they provide him with money, and fresh information," the source said.