Niger calls for help to monitor its border with Libya

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 16, 2011 

NIAMEY, Niger — The government of Niger on Friday called for international assistance to track what it said was a huge number of weapons and people that have flooded into the country from Libya in the weeks since the government of Moammar Gadhafi collapsed.

It also announced that it would not return Gadhafi figures who've fled here if they might face the death penalty at home.

Niger Justice Minister Marou Amadou told a news conference here that more than 210,000 people have crossed into his country from Libya, a figure that could not be confirmed. The International Organization for Migration offered a far lower number, saying that as many as 300 people are crossing into Niger each day.

But Amadou said the biggest concern was the weapons that had been looted from Gadhafi's armories. Thousands of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons have disappeared from Gadhafi's stores over the past five months of chaos, particularly in the four weeks since rebel troops overran Tripoli.

While most of the weapons are thought to have fallen into the hands of the revolutionaries who now control most of Libya, there's no way to be certain where the missing weapons are.

"The worst of the situation is not the Libyan people coming over, but the weapons crossing into Niger," Amadou said. "The threat is not only to our (West African) governments, but above all to European countries."

Among the missing weapons may be shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Gadhafi was known to have thousands of such weapons. News reports have said empty crates that once contained the weapons have turned up in warehouses.

The border between Niger and Libya in the Sahara Desert is difficult to monitor, and there is little firm information about who may have crossed in the past months. Niger's closest military relationships are with France, China and Morocco. The United States has little contact with the country's military.

Perhaps a dozen senior Gadhafi regime figures are believed to have crossed, including Gadhafi's son Saadi.

Amadou said Libya's National Transitional Council, the rebel governing body, has yet to request that any of the Libyans in his country be detained and returned for trial. He said should the council make such a request, "Our government will respect international legal" requirements.

But he said Niger would first have to be assured that the former Gadhafi officials don't face the death penalty, in particular Saadi Gadhafi. Niger, he noted, does not have the death penalty.

Moammar Gadhafi, his son Saif al Islam, and his intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, have been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. But Saadi and other Gadhafi family members have not been charged.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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