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Libya faces ‘impossible’ task closing desert borders

TRIPOLI: Libya’s decision to shut its desert frontiers is a tall order for its fledgling army, which is ill-equipped to seal largely uninhabited Saharan wastes stretching more than 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles).
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan told the national assembly on Tuesday that the measure requires further study and warned that “rash decisions should not be made when we are incapable of implementing them.”
Assembly members voted on Sunday to order the closure of Libya’s borders with Chad, Niger, Sudan and Algeria. They also declared martial law in the vast desert south, citing mounting unrest across the Sahel region.
The foreign ministry said on Monday that the decision was made in coordination with the countries concerned, following a regional tour by the prime minister to discuss boosting joint action against “terrorists” following the seizure of northern Mali by Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Libya plans to establish one authorized border crossing with each of the four neighbors, army spokesman Ali Al-Sheikhi told AFP. “Any person who enters or exits at other points will be considered an infiltrator,” he added.
Analysts see the measure as a response to the crisis in Mali, which has sparked calls for international intervention, but say that Libyan security forces simply do not have the means to implement it while they reamin in disarray after last year’s ouster of veteran dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
“The Mali crisis has crystallized the fact that you have an area where there can be a lot of cross-border criminality, cross-border flux,” said Jon Mark, a North Africa analyst at the London-based Chatham House.
“Some of the fighters and a lot of the guns in Mali came from Libya. The Malian conflict forced everyone to focus on the situation,” Mark said.
Mali does not share a border with Libya but it proved the worst affected by the spillover of fighters and weapons, both Tuareg and Islamist, that accompanied the uprising that overthrew Qaddafi.
With West African governments now pushing for intervention to evict the jihadists from northern Mali, Libya and its neighbors, particularly Algeria, fear the fighters and weapons made be sent streaming back north across the Sahara.
“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb got themselves more ensconced in the top of Mali. The threat that all governments in the region are worrying about is that it blows back the other way,” Mark said.
Middle East analyst Shashank Joshi said he was “skeptical” whether the new measures would make any “dent in the flow of arms, people and goods,” given that the post-Qaddafi army struggles even to secure the cities of Libya’s Mediterranean coast.
“We are dealing with national armed forces that are extremely weak and have trouble asserting themselves in populous coastal areas,” said Joshi, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
The killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans by Islamist extremists in a September 11 assault in Libya’s main eastern city Benghazi highlighted insecurity in the populous north but Joshi said the south could prove more dangerous in the long run.
“In the longer term... the threat is greater in the south... because the prospect of politically integrating the south is a lot harder than integrating the east,” he warned.
Ethnic conflicts born out of the Qaddafi regime’s policy of divide-and-rule and aggravated by the 2011 conflict have already led to several rounds of fighting in the south that claimed hundreds of lives this year.
Libya analyst Saleh Al-Senussi said the decision to declare martial law in the region also reflected continuing security concerns about remnants of the Qaddafi regime, some who found refuge in neighboring Algeria and Niger.
The new authorities worried that they might yet exploit the south for “subversive activities,” Senussi said.

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