, BAMAKO, Oct 13 – Representatives of leading Western countries and regional states met in Mali on Wednesday to discuss how to step up the fight against Islamic militants linked to Al-Qaeda.
Anti-terror experts of G8 members Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States joined counterparts from Burkina Faso, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal in Bamako.
Diplomatic sources said that Algeria, which was also invited, boycotted the talks because it believed that countries outside the region should not be involved in the battle against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
But Malian Foreign Minister Moctar Ouane said the meeting was "a sign of esteem and confidence" in Mali, where AQIM fighters are believed to be holding seven hostages seized last month in neighbouring Niger.
A diplomat said the aim was to increase awareness to step up efforts against AQIM, and matters discussed would include controlling borders and the role of organisations such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, also represented at the talks.
The meeting is scheduled to end Thursday.
AQIM kidnapped five French nationals, a Madagascan and a Togolese from an uranium mining town in Niger on September 16. It is believed to be holding them in a mountainous desert region in northeastern Mali.
Virginie Saint-Louis, Canada\’s ambassador to Mali, who chaired the meeting, said, "I am saddened by the circumstances which bring us together today, the constant and worrying threat of terrorism."
As well as the kidnapping, she referred to a bomb attack in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on independence day on October 1 which killed 12 people.
AQIM has been exploiting the vast tracts of the Sahara desert and the Sahel scrubland to the south, carrying out attacks in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria.
Australian Mike Smith, head of the United Nations anti-terrorism committee, said that AQIM "does not respect borders any more than it respects international legal norms, national sovereignty or indeed the lives of innocent people."
On the contrary "it sets up safe-havens and training camps in remote corners of the region and then launches strikes from these into the territories of other countries."
"The only way the states of the Sahel are going to be able to deal with this threat effectively over the long term is collectively (with) operational cooperation in fields such as intelligence (and) border controls," he said.
Smith also urged "working together with powers from outside the region and building mutual confidence and trust through joint training and exercises."
The growth of the group\’s activities is beginning to spur countries of the region towards greater cooperation. A month ago the military commands of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger agreed to set up a joint intelligence centre based in Algiers.