4 Saharan countries set up joint military base

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Four countries in the Sahara desert opened a joint military headquarters Wednesday in an unusual, united effort to combat al-Qaida-linked terrorism and trafficking in northwest Africa.

The new command and control center is in the Algerian city of Tamanrasset, about 2,800 kilometers (1,740 miles) south of the nation's capital deep in the desert, the Algerian army chief of staff said in a statement.

The four countries directing the operation are Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, which share porous borders across the Sahara, the world's largest desert.

The countries are hoping to establish a collective security response to threats from traffickers and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which operates across northern Africa.

Experts and intelligence officials say the threat is on the rise because terrorist groups are linking up with organized crime, especially South American drug cartels that are increasingly using the Sahara as a cocaine trafficking route. Islamist militants can get new funding and resources by working for these traffickers, experts say.

Countries in the region, many of them poor and grappling with conflicts at home, have a history of not working much across borders, and security officials say terror groups have used this to avoid capture.

Algeria's military did not specify when Tamanrasset's new combined headquarters would be operational, or how many officers would staff it.

A western security official who follows the region closely said enhanced cooperation had been made urgent by several recent cross-border incidents.

In March, army patrols from Algeria and Mali clashed by mistake for several hours near their common border before realizing neither were terror groups, the official said. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he works on intelligence matters, the official said army units in the Sahara sometimes have difficulties knowing which country they are in because there are often no landmarks along the border and they lack radio equipment to link with each other.

An Algerian security official confirmed the incident, which caused several injuries but no casualty. The official, who also spoke anonymously because Algerian law forbids discussing security matters with the media, said the new command center would ensure that patrols on the border combine efforts better.

The new command center aims at much more than just securing the borders, said M'hand Berkouk, a Sahara expert who teaches international relations at Algiers university.

"It's really the first time in Africa that a sub-region decides to integrate its security operations," Berkouk said.

The goal will be to launch joint simultaneous operations in partner states and create a common database of terror suspects and traffickers.

Algeria has a large and well-equipped military funded by the country's oil and gas revenues. Berkouk said the new partnership likely means that less-equipped armies in the poorer countries to its south will receive more training and support.

Born in northern Algeria, AQIM is now viewed as more potent in the country's far south, where it can rely on fall-back bases and recruits in neighboring Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The United States and other Western nations have pressed for years for Saharan countries to better cooperate at controlling the desert. AQIM claimed several kidnappings of tourists in the region in recent years, including British hostage Edwin Dyer, who was killed last year when Britain refused to pay a ransom. The group is also blamed for killing a U.S. aid worker in neighboring Mauritania last June.

The U.S. army says it will conduct large-scale training exercises with the military in Mali, Mauritania and other countries next month in the desert.