G8 meets in W. Africa to discuss al-Qaida threat

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BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — A meeting of the G8 countries is looking at how to counter the threat posed by Islamic militants in northwest Africa, where an al-Qaida-linked group is currently holding five French citizens and two others hostage.

Last month, the French military sent dozens of soldiers and its planes to search for the hostages who were seized in northern Niger from a uranium mining town where they were working for French nuclear giant Areva.

Col. Yamoussa Camara of the Malian Army told The Associated Press, though, that there is resistance within the region to too much involvement from foreign militaries.

“Given our past, we are not very receptive to foreign forces getting directly involved in military operations here, whatever their motives might be,” Camara said.

The countries in which al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, operates — Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger — were all colonized by the French.

Camara said that Western governments should focus on providing equipment and training, a view echoed by Col. Iro Oumarou of Niger. “What we’d like from Western countries in general is training, specialised equipment and especially support in intelligence gathering. If we were to get that help, that will help us in this region eradicate this problem.”

The two-day meeting that ends Thursday has brought together counterterrorism experts in the G8’s Counter Terrorism Action Group as well as participants from African countries in the region, the United Nations and regional bodies. The meeting was moved to Bamako on the suggestion of Canada, which currently holds the presidency of the group.

The Canadian Ambassador to Mali, Virginie Saint-Louis, recognized that Western countries have to be sensitive about their involvement, saying the countries of the region “need to assume the leading role in addressing terrorist threats by developing effective home-grown counter-terrorism strategies.”

The terror group has its roots in an extremist Islamic group in Algeria that brokered an alliance with al-Qaida in 2006. AQIM has invaded large swaths of the desert region spanning portions of Mauritania, Mali and Niger. Famous tourists spots like Timbuktu are now on the no-go list of numerous foreign embassies, including the U.S. and France.

AQIM has kidnapped more than a dozen Europeans including tourists and aid workers. The group is believed to be using the ransom payments to bankroll their operations and with each kidnapping their tactics have become more bold.

In June, French forces took part in a raid with Mauritanian troops on AQIM on Malian soil. France said it took part in the mission in the hope of freeing a French hostage held by the militants. AQIM announced shortly after the Franco-Mauritanian raid that they had killed the French hostage.