BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union is establishing a new mission to help train security forces in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa to combat terrorist and criminal networks and prevent the area from becoming a lawless launch pad for terror attacks, the bloc said Monday.
The mission’s activities would initially be focused on Niger, an arid nation bordering Libya, and the situation in the Sahel region as a whole will be closely monitored with further action possible, particularly in Mauritania and Mali, the EU said in a statement.
The new mission, which will consist of 50 international and 30 local staffers, is part of a new EU strategy aimed at preventing Islamist militants from seizing control of vast swathes of desert. Such safe havens would allow them to mount terror attacks against North African nations such as Algeria or Morocco, or even against Europe itself.
Large quantities of arms and ammunition _ including heavy weapons and artillery _ stolen by rebels during last year’s civil war in Libya were smuggled into Niger and other Sahel nations. Much of this arsenal is believed to have ended up in the hands of insurgent bands or criminal and smuggling networks.
“Increased terrorist activity and the consequences of the conflict in Libya have dramatically heightened insecurity in the Sahel,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.
The most serious situation is in northern Mali, where heavily armed extremist Islamists with links to al-Qaida have wrested control over a territory the size of France and proclaimed an Islamic state.
The U.N. refugee agency says some 300,000 people have already fled violence in Mali, and that another 140,000 Malians are expected to leave their homes amid ongoing unrest. In a sign that eerily reminded the international community of the Taliban’s destruction of famous ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Islamists in Mali have started to destroy Muslim shrines and historical sites, including some in Timbuktu which are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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