Libyan rebel commander admits his fighters have al-Qaeda links
Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, the Libyan rebel leader, has said jihadists who fought against allied troops in Iraq are on the front lines of the battle against Muammar Gaddafi's regime.
By Praveen Swami, Nick Squires and Duncan Gardham
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, Mr al-Hasidi admitted that he had recruited "around 25" men from the Derna area in eastern Libya to fight against coalition troops in Iraq. Some of them, he said, are "today are on the front lines in Adjabiya".
Mr al-Hasidi insisted his fighters "are patriots and good Muslims, not terrorists," but added that the "members of al-Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader".
His revelations came even as Idriss Deby Itno, Chad's president, said al-Qaeda had managed to pillage military arsenals in the Libyan rebel zone and acquired arms, "including surface-to-air missiles, which were then smuggled into their sanctuaries".
Mr al-Hasidi admitted he had earlier fought against "the foreign invasion" in Afghanistan, before being "captured in 2002 in Peshwar, in Pakistan". He was later handed over to the US, and then held in Libya before being released in 2008.
US and British government sources said Mr al-Hasidi was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG, which killed dozens of Libyan troops in guerrilla attacks around Derna and Benghazi in 1995 and 1996.
Even though the LIFG is not part of the al-Qaeda organisation, the United States military's West Point academy has said the two share an "increasingly co-operative relationship". In 2007, documents captured by allied forces from the town of Sinjar, showed LIFG emmbers made up the second-largest cohort of foreign fighters in Iraq, after Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this month, al-Qaeda issued a call for supporters to back the Libyan rebellion, which it said would lead to the imposition of "the stage of Islam" in the country.
British Islamists have also backed the rebellion, with the former head of the banned al-Muhajiroun proclaiming that the call for "Islam, the Shariah and jihad from Libya" had "shaken the enemies of Islam and the Muslims more than the tsunami that Allah sent against their friends, the Japanese".
'Al-Qaeda snatched missiles' in Libya
AL-QAEDA'S offshoot in North Africa has snatched surface-to-air missiles from an arsenal in Libya during the civil strife there, Chad's President says.
Idriss Deby Itno did not say how many surface-to-air missiles were stolen, but told the African weekly Jeune Afrique that he was "100 per cent sure" of his assertion.
"The Islamists of al-Qaeda took advantage of the pillaging of arsenals in the rebel zone to acquire arms, including surface-to-air missiles, which were then smuggled into their sanctuaries in Tenere," a desert region of the Sahara that stretches from northeast Niger to western Chad, Deby said in the interview.
"This is very serious. AQIM is becoming a genuine army, the best equipped in the region," he said.
His claim was echoed by officials in other countries in the region who said that they were worried that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) might have acquired "heavy weapons", thanks to the insurrection.
"We have sure information. We are very worried for the sub-region," a Malian security source who did not want to be named said.
AQIM originated as an armed Islamist resistance movement to the secular Algerian government.
It now operates mainly in Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, where it has attacked military targets and taken civilian hostages, particularly Europeans, some of whom it has killed.
"We have the same information," about heavy weapons, including SAM 7 missiles, a military source from Niger said.
"It is very worrying. This overarming is a real danger for the whole zone," he added
"AQIM gets the weapons in two ways; people go and look for the arms in Libya to deliver them to AQIM in the Sahel, or AQIM elements go there themselves."
Elsewhere in the interview, Chad's president backed the assertion by his neighbour and erstwhile enemy Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi that the protests in Libya have been driven in part by al-Qaeda.
"There is a partial truth in what he says," Deby said.
"Up to what point? I don't know. But I am certain that AQIM took an active part in the uprising."
After years of tension between the two nations, which were at war during part of the 1980s, Deby has more recently maintained good relations with Gaddafi.
The Chadian leader described the international military intervention in Libya, launched a week ago by the United States, France and Britain, as a "hasty decision".
"It could have heavy consequences for the stability of the region and the spread of terrorism in Europe, the Mediterranean and the rest of Africa," he cautioned.
Deby denied assertions that mercenaries had been recruited in Chad to fight for Gaddafi, though some of the several thousand Chad nationals in Libya may have joined the fight "on their own".