ALGIERS (Reuters) - Military chiefs from four Saharan countries met on Sunday to set out a joint strategy for fighting al Qaeda’s north African wing, which is holding seven foreigners hostage in the Sahara Desert.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seized the expatriate workers, who include five French citizens, from a uranium mining town in Niger this month in an operation that suggested it posed a growing threat to security in the resource-rich region.
Chiefs of staff from Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger were meeting in Tamanrasset, southern Algeria, where earlier this year they set up a joint headquarters to coordinate the fight against al Qaeda in the Sahara.
An Algerian Defense Ministry statement said the purpose of Sunday’s meeting was to exchange information and establish a joint strategy for tackling al Qaeda and organized crime.
It was not clear if the talks touched on the issue of the seven hostages, who also include one citizen of Togo and one from Madagascar.
But an Algerian military spokesman said the meeting came at “an opportune moment with regard to the succession of events that have taken place in the region.”
The countries sent “a clear message of their will and determination, as well as their effective capacity, to handle their security issues in an autonomous and collective way, with complete freedom and sovereignty,” Algeria’s official APS news agency quoted the spokesman, Colonel Mabrouk Sebaa, as saying.
Algeria is fiercely opposed to Western military forces taking any role in the Sahara, saying that AQIM is a problem the countries of the region must tackle themselves.
French commandos, along with Mauritanian troops, staged a raid in July to try to free 78-year-old French hostage Michel Germaneau, but did not find him. He was executed soon after.
Algeria has been pressing its neighbors in the Sahara to take a more coordinated approach to tackling al Qaeda and also to halt the practice of paying ransoms and releasing jailed militants in return for hostages’ freedom.
The lack of a unified approach among Saharan and European countries has “facilitated the business of kidnapping foreigners for ransoms,” a security source in Algeria told Reuters.
A French presidential spokesman said on Sunday that the seven hostages had been moved from Niger to Mali.
He also said that Paris, which said after Germaneau’s killing that it was “at war” with al Qaeda, would consider negotiating with the hostage takers for the captives’ release.
Editing by Kevin Liffey