Nouakchott — Nigerien troops clashed with smugglers near the Libyan and Algerian borders last week, RFI reported.
The violent confrontation erupted in the region of Ténéré on September 3rd, with Nigerien soldiers battling it out with drug traffickers in a dozen all-terrain vehicles overnight into the next day. The outcome of the skirmish was not revealed by the Nigerien army, according to RFI.
These groups not only smuggle drugs, but they are also active in human trafficking, as well as weapons, cigarette and currency smuggling, according to Nigerien journalist Omar Malinko.
Malinko told Magharebia that Niger's government was doing its utmost in co-ordination with Arab and Touareg residents of the north, as well as with border states, to curb the spread of those illegal activities.
"Despite all these efforts, the challenge remains strong and particularly the threat coming from Libya, which still lacks secure government institutions and protected southern borders. This is due to the security chaos prevailing in that country as well as the activity of al-Qaeda," the Nigerien journalist added.
During an interview with Magharebia, Hassan Ag Osa, a resident of northern Niger commented on these confrontations, saying the vast area was "a suitable place for movements of terrorist groups and their counterparts active in smuggling operations".
"Recently, however, several movements as well as activities by vehicles crossing the desert were reported. Yet, the vastness of the desert and its difficult terrain prevented the government from constantly monitoring the area," Ag Osa said.
The recent clashes with smuggling gangs could open a new front for the Sahel and Maghreb states, who share borders with Niger.
The situation prompted Interpol chief Mireille Ballestrazzi to say during a regional conference in Algeria on Tuesday that "the fight against drug trafficking requires more co-operation and exchange of information between Sahel countries".
According to experts, terrorist groups often co-ordinate with smuggling gangs across the region to secure routes and buy weapons. Analyst Islamo Ould Mostafa said that Islamist militants deal with drugs according to what they believe serves their interests the most.
They allow drugs to cross their territory, so long as they get paid by the smugglers, the analyst said. The terrorists and extremist groups justify this by saying the drugs will end up harming non-Muslims, he added.