France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius called on Libya’s neighbors to help suppress militant Islamist activity in its deserts on Tuesday during a visit to Niger where French special forces participated in a counterterrorism operation last week that killed two of the suspected perpetrators of a car bomb attack on a French uranium mine in the country.
“It seems we must make a special effort on southern Libya,” said Fabius after meeting Nigerien president Mahamadou Issoufou in Niamey. “Since, as is often said, a large part of Libya could act as a refuge for terrorist groups, all of these countries must act together,” he added, referring to Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia, countries that have seen Islamist violence surge in the wake of “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011.
Fabius promised that France would help with “lots of determination, lots of solidarity.”
Radical Islamists, including militants who are affiliated with the terrorist organization Al Qaeda, have used the sparsely populated south of Libya as a smuggling route for weapons since the fall of the North African country’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011.
France participated in the international military effort that enabled Libya’s rebels to topple the regime.
The new government in Tripoli, lacking adequate army and police resources, has struggled to control criminal and militant activity in the south but denied Niger’s accusation on Monday that the terrorists who attacked an army barrack and uranium mine there last week had come from the region. “It was Gaddafi who exported terrorism,” Prime Minister Ali Zeidan told a news conference in Brussels. “The new Libya will not tolerate that.”
Nigerien authorities suspect that the dual attacks were carried out by members of Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing whom in January attacked a natural gas plant near the Libyan border in Algeria and held over eight hundred of its workers hostage. Dozens of hostages and militants were killed when Algerian special forces raided the facility.
The hostage takers had demanded an end to France’s military presence in nearby Mali, a former French colony. The European nation intervened in its civil war in January to prevent an alliance of Islamist and local secessionist groups, which had driven the national army out of much of the north of the country and declared an independent state there, from advancing on the capital city of Bamako. French airstrikes and a French-Malian ground offensive forced the Islamists to abandon their strongholds and seek refuge in the unruly desert area between Algeria, Libya, Mali and Niger.
France is drawing down its troop presence in Mali from the 4,000 it had deployed there. A West African peacekeeping force is supposed to take over to prevent the Islamists from resurging.