Mali has turned into a victim of "foreign terrorist aggression” as Afghan and Pakistani jihadists train Islamist recruits in the breakaway northern region, said Niger President Mahamadou Issofou in an interview with FRANCE 24 Thursday.
"We have information of the presence of Afghans, Pakistanis in northern Mali operating as trainers," said Issofou in the interview from the capital Niamey on Thursday. "They are training those that have been recruited in West Africa."
More than two months after northern Mali fell from government control following a March 22 military coup, the region has turned into a haven for rebel groups, with a motley mix of Tuareg separatist and Islamist groups controlling different parts of a region the size of France.The region’s two main armed groups – the Tuareg separatist MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad) and Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group – have been in a precarious alliance in recent weeks.
Issofou’s revelation came days after French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that northern Mali was in danger of becoming “a West African Afghanistan”.
The situation in northern Mali has sparked a humanitarian crisis in neighbouring countries such as Niger, with thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict zone amid growing fears of instability across the region.
Regional jihadist groups operate in ‘Africanistan’
In his interview with FRANCE 24, Issofou said his country had information about the existence of a nebulous network of terrorist organizations that maintain links with the Somali al Shebaab group, the Nigerian Boko Haram, and the mostly Algerian-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Warning about the emergence of an "Africanistan," Issofou said he had "specific information” about a Boko-Haram training camp in [the northern Malian city of] Gao".
Urging the UN resolution to use force
Days before a scheduled visit to Paris to meet newly-elected French President François Hollande, Issofou urged the UN Security Council to approve a resolution that would allow the use of force to restore Mali's territorial integrity if peace talks failed.
Issofou’s call for a UN Security Council resolution came weeks after Hollande urged the African Union to seek UN help to restore stability in the region.
FRANCE 24 reports from Mali
France, the former colonial power and Mali's fourth-largest aid donor, plays a vital role in training and equipping Malian government forces and is an important player in the region.
Speaking to reporters last month, Hollande said France would be ready to help restore stability in Mali if there was a UN Security Council resolution.
Meanwhile, a European Union mission to help Niger in the fight against terrorism and organized crime will be launched in late July.
Niger, like Mali, is based in the Sahel, a hostile forbidding terrain between the Sahara desert and the African savannah, straddling the borders of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
Historically known as West Africa’s badlands, the region has traditionally afforded shelter to smugglers, traffickers, insurgents and militants of various stripes.
Four French nationals kidnapped in Niger in September 2010 by groups claiming to have links to AQIM are believed to be in this border area between Mali and Niger.
In his interview with FRANCE 24, Issofou declined to provide details of the French hostages, but he did say the hostages were "alive and healthy" and that his government was "closely following" the issue.