* First public statement by group on missing weapons
* War has deepened security fears in Sahara-Sahel zone
By Laurent Prieur and Lamine Chikhi
NOUAKCHOTT/ALGIERS, Nov 10 (Reuters) - One of al Qaeda’s commanders in the Sahara has said the group profited from the Libyan conflict by securing weapons and he called on Islamists in Libya not to disarm.
The comments by Mokhtar Belmokhtar in an interview with Mauritania’s private ANI news agency are the first about Libya’s looted arms by al Qaeda’s North African wing.
“With regard to the weapons, we obviously took advantage of the situation in Libya ... but we were not on the ground. I also warn my brothers there not to give back their weapons to the authorities,” Belmokhtar said in comments published in Arabic.
An Islamist commander in Libya said this week fighters would keep their weapons despite the end of fighting to prevent forces loyal to toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi from regrouping.
Islamists who took part in the fighting in Libya disavow any links to the violent ambitions of AQIM. Algeria has repeatedly said sophisticated weapons have been transferred from Libya to northern Mali.
Belmokhtar did not say in the interview what weapons the group had secured or how they had got them.
Western and African governments fear small arms and heavier weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, may end up in the hands of Islamists, and others in the region.
In the interview, Belmokhtar confirmed reports there had been disagreements within the leadership of the Sahara group. “But it is not a big deal,” he said in comments posted on the news agency’s website on Wednesday.
Belmokhtar is one of al Qaeda’s two Sahara commanders. Although not named in the interview, Abdelhamid Abou Zaid is the other and some analysts say the pair have an often strained relationship.
AQIM emerged from the Algerian jihadi movement and has attacked government forces in Mauritania, Mali and Niger. It has thrived in recent years by kidnapping Westerners for multi-million dollar ransoms.
Belmokhtar is believed to have nurtured strong ties with local communities, smugglers and rebels across the desert zones.
In the interview, Belmokhtar denied being in talks with the Algerian government about a possible surrender. He said he would welcome a delegation sent by the Mauritanian authorities if one were to be sent.
Belmokhtar is also known as Khaled Abou al-Abbas and Laaouar, or “one-eyed”. He lost an eye in fighting in Afghanistan before he took part in Algeria’s jihadist movement during the 1990s. (Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Robert Woodward)