TRIPOLI (AFP) – Libya’s remote desert south has become a haven for north African militants who have set up training camps in what has traditionally been a hotbed of arms smuggling, experts say.
Oil-rich Libya slid into chaos after veteran dictator Moamer Gadhafi was toppled and killed in a NATO-backed uprising three years ago. Weapons looted from his arsenal have made their way to the so-called “Salvador Triangle”, a no-man’s land formed by the porous borders of Libya, Algeria and Niger, experts say.
For years the triangle was the backyard of smugglers and traffickers through which illicit weapons flowed easily between north Africa and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. But since the uprising, the activity of militants with links to al-Qaeda has flourished in the region, buoyed by the inability of the Libyan authorities to tame the armed groups.
On October 10, France said its forces had destroyed a convoy belonging to al-Qaeda’s north African branch in Niger that was carrying arms from Libya to Mali.
The operation was part of a counter-terrorism campaign led by France to flush out militants, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), from the Sahel region.
Militants had occupied the desert north of Mali for 10 months before they were ousted in January 2013 in a French-led military intervention.
“The south of Libya has become a hideout for extremists following the French military intervention in Mali,” said Mohamed Fazzani, an expert on militant groups.
“It is very difficult for any army to control such a vast region, unless it has sophisticated technology” because the militants “know very well the terrain and can set up camps despite harsh conditions.”
An intelligence official, who declined to be named, told AFP that militants have set up three “secret camps” in southern Libya where hundreds of them are training to fight in Mali, Iraq or Syria.
“These camps have become the key providers of combat-ready militants,” the source said.
Libya expert Jason Pack says militants pushed out from northern Mali have set up training camps in Libya’s south, adding that the region has become “much more” than a transit route for gunmen and smugglers.