UPDATE 1-Sahara nations to set up desert patrol force-Mali

Fri May 20, 2011 4:47pm GMT

* Mali says nations to establish joint desert force

* Pledge to test steps towards regional cooperation

By Sadio Kante

BAMAKO, May 20 (Reuters) - Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria will set up, within 18 months, a joint force of up to 75,000 soldiers to secure their shared Sahara-Sahel desert zone, Mali's foreign minister said on Friday.

The four nations are struggling to control the zone, where al Qaeda's North African wing has stepped up attacks and is operating alongside smugglers, rebels and local criminals.

A joint command centre has been established in Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria, but regional rivalries and the lack of trust between the countries have long stymied a coordinated regional approach European nations and the U.S. have called for.

"The number of soldiers in the force tasked with fighting terrorism will increase to ... 75,000 in the next 18 months," Malian Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said, according to a text of a speech given to Reuters.

Maiga, who was speaking at a meeting in Mali, also stressed the need to tackle "trans-national organised crime".   Continued...

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