Algeria puts military on high alert on Libya, Mali borders

Sunday 29/01/2017
A 2013 file picture shows Algerian soldiers standing guard 1,600km south-east of Algiers. (Reuters)

Tunis - The Algerian Army and Air Force have been put on high alert after top mili­tary officials warned that a fresh build-up of jihad­ist fighters threatened to infiltrate the country through Libya and Mali, Algeria’s main newspaper re­ported.

Most of Algeria’s 6,385km land frontier has been under military control since 2014 when Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika transferred border control opera­tions from the Ministry of the Inte­rior to the army.

“Facing a great challenge, Alge­ria has not only increased the num­ber of troops on its borders but put its military troops stationed on the Libyan and Mali borders on alert number one,” Salima Tlemçani wrote in El Watan newspaper.

“An order has been given to maintain the highest level of vigi­lance and anticipate the suspicious movement of persons towards the Algerian border.”

A veteran Algerian journalist, who spoke on condition of ano­nymity, said he had learned from a military source there had been “increased sorties from jet fighters and helicopters scanning the sky over the border” and that troops had been put on “the maximum alert”.

El Watan reported the alert no­tice was given by Algeria’s top military authority, although it was unclear whether the reference was to Bouteflika, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, or General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the country’s top-ranking military commander.

El Watan said the alert was de­livered after military intelligence gave indication of an increasingly deteriorating situation in Libya, “the likely return of 2,000-2,500 Tunisian jihadists to their home country and violence between Tu­areg and Toubou tribes in southern Libya”.

Algerian authorities were report­ed to be concerned that thousands of foreign militants, including up to 3,500 Islamic State (ISIS) fight­ers fleeing fighting in Iraq and Syr­ia and “hundreds” of Boko Haram members from Nigeria, could be making their way to Libya.

Authorities were also said to be worried about the resurgence of al-Qaeda factions in Mali and other sub-Saharan African states, El Wa­tan said.

Libyan authorities in Tripoli had seemed optimistic about driving ISIS from the country when local militias claimed to have uprooted the extremist group from its main stronghold of Sirte in December but a recent US attack indicates the terror group is still active.

On January 19th, the United States announced that at least 80 ISIS fighters were killed during air strikes on camps near Sirte. Some of those killed were believed to have been plotting attacks in Eu­rope, the Pentagon said.

“All this makes Algeria fear the worst,” El Watan wrote. “That is why it is mobilising… troops along its borders in the south and north-east.”

To protect its standing as a main gas exporter to Europe and secure its place as a regional military pow­er, Algeria is likely to do everything in its power to prevent a major at­tack, analysts said.

“The military deployed on the borders of Libya and Mali was bol­stered by significant technical air capabilities, while the deployment of… forces on the border with Tu­nisia was part of a new strategy to better control the movement of people between the two coun­tries,” said El Watan.

Asked about the El Watan report, a senior diplomat in the region told The Arab Weekly: “It is clear from how the article is organised that it contains leaks from the De­fence Ministry but how much of it is aimed at the domestic front is the guess of many in Algiers. The threat from the borders is clear but reminding people here of that helps underpin stability inside the country ahead of elections in the coming few months.”