BAMAKO — Mali called Friday for a regional push to train up to 75,000 troops within the next 18 months to combat militants in the Sahel desert region, home to Al-Qaeda's north African offshoot.
"In the next 18 months our countries should train and mobilise 25,000 to 75,000 men in the fight against terrorism and transnational crime," Mali's Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga told regional counterparts.
He was addressing the opening of a regional meeting between Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria in Bamako to discuss terrorism and transnational crime in the Sahel.
"More than ever our people and our countries are exposed to the threat of terrorism, heavy weapons in circulation, drug trafficking and hostage-taking," said Maiga.
He said it was vital the four countries, which share a military base in Algeria, acted together against terrorism.
Later, at a press conference, Maiga said the military base had identified the capacities of the various armies involved.
"We are ready for this fight, for this struggle against Al-Qaeda," he said, adding the countries involved had no intention of turning the Sahel "into a war zone like Afghanistan where soldiers patrol with dozens of kilograms of weapons."
A Malian delegate said other countries with more experience in fighting terrorism such as Morocco, Chad and Tunisia should be partners in the battle.
Algeria's delegate, Abdel Kader Messahel, said: "The challenges we face require more focused planning and effective co-ordination.
"It falls on us to evaluate dangerous developments and the new dimensions the terrorist threat is taking," he added.
Niger's Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum denounced "the payment of ransom to terrorists which allows them to kill a greater number of people."
The ministers also discussed the unrest in Libya.
"We have to face the collateral damage from the Libyan crisis, with war weapons falling into the hands of Al-Qaeda," said Mali's chief diplomat.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) has several bases in Mali from where it launches operations into the desert region, carrying out attacks, kidnappings of foreigners and drug trafficking.
AQIM is holding four French citizens abducted in northern Niger in September 2010 as well as an Italian kidnapped in southern Algeria in February.
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