March 21, 2012 / 11:27 AM / 7 years ago

Niger arrests ex-rebel chief on suspected Qaeda link

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Authorities in Niger have arrested former Tuareg rebel leader Aghali Alambo for alleged arms smuggling and links to al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, police sources said late on Tuesday.

His arrest comes as neighbour Mali battles fresh unrest in its north, where rebels, Islamists and smugglers have tapped the flow of weapons out of Libya following Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, and are increasingly active in remote desert zones.

Alambo led Niger’s last rebellion between 2007 and 2009, which ended after the mediation of Libya’s late leader, with whom Alambo had close ties.

A police source said Alambo was arrested as a result of investigations that followed the June 2011 seizure in Niger of weapons and explosives that had been smuggled out of Libya.

During interrogation, Abta Hamidine, a former member of Alambo’s now-disbanded rebel group who has been held since the seizure, said that Alambo had tasked him with travelling to Libya to fetch weapons to transport to al Qaeda fighters in northern Mali.

“Aghali Alambo will be questioned on charges of ties to criminal groups, financing terrorism, arms trafficking,” the source said, asking not to be named.

Hamidine was arrested last years after Nigerien authorities seized a convoy of weapons in Niger’s northern Agadez region as it left Libya with more than 600 kg of explosives, 435 detonators and tens of thousands of dollars in cash.

During Libya’s war last year, hundreds of Tuareg fighters from both Mali and Niger flocked to fight for Gaddafi, who had long swollen his ranks with the nomadic fighters from nations to the south.

Alambo helped Niger’s government manage the return of these fighters to Niger late last year and had served as an adviser to the president of the parliament.

Mali, however, has struggled to contain the return of hundreds of heavily armed men and is facing a fresh violence.

MNLA rebels - combination of veterans from Libya’s conflict, rebels from previous Malian uprisings and a younger generation of Tuareg activists - say they are fighting for independence for the north.

However, the situation has been muddied by the presence of a separate group, also led by a former Tuareg rebel, saying it wants to impose sharia law.

Fighters linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda’s North African branch, and international smugglers also operate in the zone.

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