Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali

Mohammed Islanta and his wife Mohammed Islamta and his wife left everything behind them when they fled fighting in Mali to come to Niger

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The hot season is fast approaching in northern Niger and the sun burns into the flimsy roofs of the refugee tents, the plastic sheeting an incongruous blue against the few stems of green on trees and the dun colour of the sandy ground.

Seventy-year-old Mohammed Islamta arranges his few meagre possessions carefully in the dust; a mat, a cooking pot and traditional Tuareg tea-pot and stove, the only things he managed to bring as he fled his home near Menaka in Mali just over a month ago.

"I left all my animals - a donkey and five goats behind. It was a very difficult decision," he says, "but we saw people fleeing and we didn't want to stay to see what happened."

This remote corner of parched scrub seems far removed from the dramatic events in Sirte last October, as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was dragged from a sewer, called a rat and beaten to death by fighters from the then rebel National Transitional Council.

Contamination

But, for seasoned observers, the arrival of these refugees is the beginning of the nightmare scenario that many feared would follow the Libyan conflict.

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The refugees who arrived in Mangaize, in northern Niger, are fleeing clashes between Malian ethnic Tuareg rebels from the newly-formed National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the national army which broke out in January 2012.

Some 130,000 people have fled their homes, according to the UN refugee agency.

These Tuaregs had, until September, been busy fighting alongside Col Gaddafi's forces as he struggled to cling to power in Libya.

They had taken sanctuary in Libya after their own rebellion in Mali in 2008 was defeated.

But as Col Gaddafi's luck began to turn south, they picked up the spoils of war around them and headed in the same direction; straight into the deserts of northern Mali, already unstable following attacks from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The contamination does not stop there.

Start Quote

We're upset that the Malians have allowed this situation to get out of control”

End Quote Bazoum Mohammed Foreign minister of Niger

Niger - now hosting some 23,000 refugees - is worried that its own Tuareg population may rise up in rebellion, inspired by the MNLA.

A former rebellion in northern Niger led by the MNJ (Nigerien Movement for Justice), with links to the Malian Tuaregs, wreaked havoc in the north from 2007-9.

"We're upset that the Malians have allowed this situation to get out of control," says Bazoum Mohammed, Niger's foreign minister.

"Everyone knew this situation was coming; everyone knew that AQIM was present in the region; everyone knew that the Tuareg rebellion from 2008 in Mali had not been decapitated. And yet the Malians did not act."

Brief respite

Former fighters from the MNJ were among a convoy that arrived in northern Niger in September, bringing Col Gaddafi's own son Saadi to safety.

A woman and her children sit under a shelter at a Malian refugees camp in Chinegodar, western Niger (4 Feb 2012) Niger worries its own Tuareg population may rise up in rebellion

But, despite the evident dangers, Niger's authorities seem to have chosen to fight.

Patrols in the far-flung north of the country have been stepped up, and in the months following Col Gaddafi's fall from Tripoli, many ex-fighters from Libya coming into Niger were disarmed.

Regular surveillance flights supported by the US Pan-Sahelian Counter Terrorism Initiative patrol the skies, looking for unusual movements.

And former rebels have been integrated into government - the new prime minister appointed in April 2011 is a Tuareg, as are most of the local officials in Agadez.

"We dealt with the Tuareg problem better than Mali did," says Mr Mohammed. "There will be no repeat here."

Niger is hoping that its efforts will be matched by those of regional powers, with Niger calling for a regional force to be sent to Mali at a recent summit of the West African body, Ecowas .

Most observers agree that Niger's strong actions have reduced the imminent danger of a Tuareg rebellion within its own territory.

But, without concerted action in neighbouring Mali, Niger's respite may only be brief.

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