TRIPOLI, Libya – Weapons smuggled from Libya after the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi's government are flowing through the surrounding region, the president of neighboring Niger said, a development that threatens to destabilize a swath of the continent already struggling against ethnic unrest and a regional branch of Al Qaeda.
"Arms were stolen in Libya and are being disseminated all over the region," Niger's president Mahamadou Issoufou said following a meeting with South African president Jacob Zuma. "Saharan countries are facing terrorist threats, arms and criminal trafficking. The Libya crisis is amplifying those crises."
Issoufou's remarks came days after Niger's military clashed with arms smugglers traveling from Libya. Six smugglers and one soldier died in Sunday's battle, he said.
Niger's foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum said the battle was the fourth such incident since February, the beginning of the uprising in Libya that resulted in Qaddafi's overthrow and the widespread looting of his vast armories.
The stretch of desert between Libya and West Africa already ranks among the world's principal smuggling routes, according to officials and locals. It is maintained by militants from the local Tuareg tribe who help to traffic arms, Europe-bound cocaine from Colombia, cigarettes and even household merchandise like diapers, these people say, over the ancient caravan route.
The inflow of missiles "adds a whole level to the arsenal," Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, said. "The one area where governments that are trying to assert control of this large, ungoverned space have had the advantage is on air superiority. If that's taken away, it's very difficult to control the ground."