ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — The foreign ministers of Algeria and other North African nations met Wednesday to discuss how to confront terrorism in the vast desolate regions of the Sahara Desert.
The two-day conference, originally expected to focus just on al-Qaida, has now also become inextricably tied up with the civil war in neighboring Libya, which Algeria says has sent floods of arms across the border into militant hands.
High-level delegations from France and the United States, including the head of the U.S. African command, Gen. Carter Ham, were also attending, along with delegations from nearly 40 countries. Workshops were being held ranging from fighting terrorism and organized crime to implementing local development projects.
"This is an important meeting and the first of its kind and we hope it will develop synergies and cooperation around a core of four countries, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria," Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said at the start of the conference.
He hoped the African countries would share intelligence and work together to develop the impoverished desert region that has become a hideout for the North African branch of al-Qaida.
Algeria is also in an awkward position regarding the new rulers of Libya, since it was a close ally of Moammar Gadhafi's regime and has given refuge to members of his family. On Aug. 29, a convoy including Gadhafi's wife, daughter and two of his sons crossed the border into Algeria and they are now believed to be residing in the capital of Algiers.
A second convoy with Gadhafi's top security official crossed from Libya into the territory of another conference participant, Niger, on Monday.
Al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb grew out of the armed groups fighting the Algerian government in the 1990s after elections were canceled by the military in 1991 to stave off a victory for an Islamist political party.
The group declared allegiance to al-Qaida in 2006 and changed its name, embarking on a renewed campaign of bombings and kidnappings across the Sahara.
In Sept. 1, AQIM announced it had killed 29 members of Algeria's security forces between July and August, including 18 killed in twin suicide bombings of the Algerian military academy at Cherchell on Aug. 26. The group has also kidnapped a dozen foreigners working or visiting the Sahara Desert.
According to reports cited by the U.S. embassy in a 2007 cable released by WikiLeaks, the organization has been thriving on ransoms from kidnappings and smuggling routes for guns, cigarettes and drugs through the Sahara.
Smuggling is carried out by the nomadic Tuareg tribes that are disaffected, impoverished and have periodically fought with the region's governments. The conference aims to implement development programs to wean them away from cooperating with al-Qaida.