PARIS (Reuters) - Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said on Thursday that Afghan and Pakistani jihadis were training recruits for Islamist groups in northern Mali, the latest sign it is slipping into terrorist hands.
Speaking before a meeting with new French President Francois Hollande next week, Issoufou told France 24 that talks to reach a peaceful solution in Mali continued, but a United Nations Security Council resolution to allow military intervention would be a necessity if they failed.
“We have information of the presence of Afghans, Pakistanis in northern Mali operating as trainers,” Issoufou told the French TV network in Niamey. “They are training those that have been recruited in West African countries.”
Mali, once regarded as a fine example of African democracy, collapsed into chaos after soldiers toppled the president in March, leaving a power vacuum in the north that enabled Tuareg rebels to take control of nearly two-thirds of the country.
But the uprising also has involved a mix of local and foreign Islamists, who appear to be better armed and appear to have the upper hand in the rebel-occupied north with Western nations concerned about a real risk of the region turning into a West African Afghanistan.
“The jihadis control the situation in northern Mali,” he said. “The other forces with other objectives are marginal. The main forces are the jihadis and drug traffickers.”
Issoufou said Niger had evidence that Boko Haram, an Islamist group that has become a security threat in Nigeria’s north and fostered links with al Qaeda’s north African wing (AQIM), was running training camps in the Malian town of Gao.
Residents and security experts say senior AQIM figures are appearing openly in the major towns in Mali’s north, having previously been limited to remote desert regions.
“If terrorists implant themselves in Africa, they will threaten Europe,” Issoufou said. “I see the necessity for a U.N. Security Council resolution on the Mali situation to allow the use of force to restore integrity of Mali’s territory. I am optimistic because Western powers are aware of the danger that threatens them in the Sahel.”
African leaders met in Abidjan on Thursday to hammer out details of the U.N. request for a military mandate in Mali.
Ivory Coast Foreign Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan said a Chapter 7 mandate must be considered to reunite the country if talks with armed groups failed to resolve a crisis.
“ECOWAS is ready to send men for this mission which will be costly and difficult due to the hostile terrain,” said Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, head of the ECOWAS commission. “It counts on the contribution of the international community.”
Regional bloc ECOWAS has said for weeks it has men ready but sources close to peacekeeping officials said the price tag of over $200 million and confusion over the mission’s objectives mean deployment is still far off.
Former colonial ruler France has said it would be ready to help restore stability in Mali if there was a Security Council resolution.
Reporting By Joe Bavier and David Lewis in Abidjan; Editing by Michael Roddy