Hundreds of armed Tuaregs from Mali and Niger who fought for toppled Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi have started to return to their home nations, security sources said, raising fears of conflict.
"Hundreds of Malian and Nigerian Tuaregs are coming home from the Libyan front. Among them are former Malian and Nigerien rebels, but also Tuaregs of Malian origin who were in the Libyan army," said a security source at Gao in the north of Mali.
The Tuaregs from the army obtained Libyan nationality in the 1990s and mostly fought alongside Kadhafi's other troops. Some of them were integrated into an elite military unit, the same source said.
"Mali has the same problem" as Niger, which borders Libya, the source added.
Officials from Niger on Sunday told AFP that Nigerien mercenaries, mainly Tuaregs, had begun returning to the northern town of Agadez on the edge of the Sahara desert, after Kadhafi's forces were routed by Libyan rebels.
"We need to fear a destabilisation of the whole Sahel with this new development. States like Mali and Niger are not prepared for this situation," said Mamadou Diallo, a teacher at Bamako University in Mali.
"What's going to become of these fighters? They have vehicles, weapons and expertise," he added. "This is dangerous."
Both the neighbouring, largely desert nations have in the past two decades faced serious Tuareg uprisings, which were ended by peace talks between their governments and the rebels, mediated by tribal elders.
The Tuaregs, who have historically roamed over vast tracts of the southern Sahara, seek acknowledgement of their cultural identity and have pressed the governments of the cash-strapped countries to help develop their regions.
Locals have expressed fear of these fighters since they left Libya, warning that their return with Libyan heavy weaponry might benefit Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which originated in Algeria and operates in several countries.
A community of some 1.5 million people, the Tuaregs have traditionally lived in Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso. The Tuareg rebellions shook Mali and Niger in the 1990s and early 2000s, with a resurgence between 2006 and 2009, which caused tens of thousands of Tuaregs to take refuge in Libya.© ANP/AFP