To people in Niger, Libyan ‘El Dorado’ is now a threat

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Libya, considered an El Dorado for jobs and money when Moamer Qaddafi was its “Guide”, has become a terrorist threat in the eyes of people in northern Niger after two suicide bombings.

“Libya is no longer the country that fed us. It has turned into a real threat to our peace,” Iliassou, a motorcycle taxi driver, told AFP in the main northern town of Agadez.

On May 23, a suicide attack on a large military base in the desert town killed about 20 people, mostly soldiers. At almost the same moment, a Nigerien employee was killed in another attack against the French nuclear giant Areva, where it mines uranium in Arlit, 200 kilometres (125 miles) further north.

President Mahamadou Issoufou blamed Islamic extremists who had crossed into Niger from Libya, the northern neighbour of the vast sub-Saharan country, for both attacks.

In the ochre dust of the alleys in Agadez, from the outdoor tea-drinking holes known as “fadas” up to the market and the famed mosque, residents are talking about what Libya has become.

“How could such a generous and calm country transform itself into a monster?” asked schoolteacher Alousseini Algabas.

The chief of the local radio station Sahara FM, Ibrahim Manzo, has his own answer. “It's the collapse of the Qaddafi regime which has brought us all these problems,” he said.

Many people in Agadez share Manzo's nostalgia for Qaddafi, one of Africa's longest-serving despots, who was killed in October 2011 after an eight-month rebel insurgency.

Under Qaddafi, who both provided funds for northern Niger and supported Tuareg rebels based around Agadez from the 1990s, thousands of local people went to work in Libya and sent money back to their families.

However, Tripoli's new masters chased many of these labourers out, and they are still doing so. About 1,500 clandestine workers from across west Africa, including many Nigeriens, arrived in Agadez last weekend. Some wander around the town like lost souls, nursing hopes of sneaking back across the Libyan border.

“Before becoming a terrorist sanctuary, Libya helped breast-feed us,” retired police officer Abdou says.

The new Libyan authorities seem largely powerless to control the whole of their vast territory, though this week they denied that the country has become a hotbed of terrorists since armed Islamists were routed from towns in neighbouring northern Mali.

“The south of Libya, where anarchy reigns, has become a safe haven for the terrorists hunted in Mali,” asserts Rhissa Ag Boula, a former Tuareg rebel chief who has become a counsellor to Niger's president.

“After causing chaos in Mali, whence they were chased out, the terrorists have taken up refuge in Libya,” says Mohamed Adjidar, member of an official commission set up to fight against the proliferation of light arms.

Mohamed Anako, president of the regional council of Agadez and a veteran of Tuareg uprisings in the 1990s, warns: “In Libya each tribe has its weapons, and that benefits terrorist groups. At any moment, we could face terrorist attacks.”

Seeing southern Libya as a “real threat”, Sultan Ibrahim Elhadj Oumarou, the most senior Muslim dignitary in the city, “calls on the (Nigerien) state to guard this border well”.

“We need to deal with this Libyan zone before it's too late,” Mohamed Adjidar says, arguing that otherwise, “a Mali-type scenario could happen here in the north of Niger.”

Armed Islamist movements seized control of northern Mali on the back of a Tuareg uprising last year, before they were driven out of the main towns by a French-led military intervention that started in January.

“With a few banknotes, the terrorists could buy local accomplices to help them carry out their dirty work,” says driver Ahmed Maha.

Anako has launched an appeal on behalf of the regional council, arguing that NATO, which intervened in Libya in 2011, and the international community should join hands in “helping to stabilize Libya”.

During a visit to Niger's capital Niamey on Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged “joint action” with the Libyan authorities and their neighbors against “terrorist” groups.

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