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Guns, migrants, mercenaries: Qaddafi's loss is the Sahel's gain

Aside from Qaddafi and his family, up to one million migrants from Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso may leave war-torn Libya, and arms from Qaddafi's arsenal are already showing up in conflict zones as far away as Somalia.

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent / September 15, 2011

Butchers burn cow legs to sell in Niamey, Niger, Wednesday. A son of Muammar Qaddafi and three of his generals were trying to gain political asylum Wednesday in this poor, landlocked nation at Libya's feet, after a more than 1,000-mile drive across the vast desert that separates the two countries for what could be their only shot at refuge.

Sunday Alamba/AP

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Dakar, Senegal

Leaders from the Saharan nation of Niger, yesterday requested international aid to curb the flow of migrants, militants, and guns across their desert border with Libya.

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Turmoil in post-Qaddafi Libya, say Nigerien officials, residents, and analysts, could augur an explosion in violence and unemployment across Libya's sub-Saharan flank. The neighborhood is occupied by some of Africa's least peaceful, most impoverished countries.

Africa's Sahel, a drought belt that stretches from Senegal to Somalia, “has long had a wild west quality to it,” writes former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn in an e-mail to the Monitor.

It is the stage on which semi-nomadic Tuareg combatants have fought sporadically for independence over decades; failing that, many have linked up with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist sect that kidnaps foreigners. The Mali-based Al Qaeda, reports claim, begun collaborating as recently as last month with Boko Haram, the Nigerian pro-Sharia law rebellion that took credit for an August 26 bombing on a United Nations headquarters.

Further east, the militia Al Shabab has seized large swaths of the Somalia's south. In Ethiopia, rebels and state troops continue gun battles in Ethiopia's gas-rich Ogaden region. On Sunday in Darfur, the site of Sudan's mass killings, the separatist region's top rebel leader returned from nearly two years in exile, in Libya.

“The region can't get more unstable than it already is,” says London's School of Oriental and African Studies Professor Jeremy Keenan, who performs hostage negotiation for conflicts in the region.

And yet, it might, he and other analysts agree.

A southward wave of people – and weapons

Aside from sparking a “mass movement of one million people plus” – sub-Saharan Africans who sought migrant work in oil-rich Libya – the end of the country's conflict could send a southward wave of thousands of dejected Libyan fighters, including Nigerien Tuaregs, and sub-Saharan mercenaries hired by Libya’s ex-leader Muammar Qaddafi, says J. Peter Pham, Director of the Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

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