* Newspapers say Algeria sent arms shipment to Mali
* Joint operation against al Qaeda to start soon: reports
* Al Qaeda in N. Africa threatening to kill British hostage
By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, May 5 (Reuters) - Algeria has sent military aid to Mali in preparation for a joint operation with states around the Sahara desert to flush out al Qaeda militants, two Algerian newspapers reported on Tuesday.
A group called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has threatened to kill a British hostage, believed to be held somewhere in the Sahara region, on May 15 unless Britain releases a Jordanian Islamist it is holding in prison.
Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania will soon launch an operation — the first of its kind to include the four countries — to tackle the al Qaeda militants, the El Watan and El Khabar newspapers reported, citing unnamed security sources.
Algeria is to provide military equipment to its three neighbours to help with the operation, and a first consignment of assault weapons, ammunition, communications gear and fuel arrived in Mali on May 4, El Khabar said.
Algeria will provide further shipments of military equipment for the operation, which could start within the next month or two and is expected to last for six months, the two independent newspapers said.
States in the region have been discussing a collective response to Islamist militant violence but the operation would be the first time practical steps have been taken on any scale.
There was no immediate confirmation of the Algerian arms shipment, or of plans for an operation.
“Anti-terror cooperation between the four countries is a necessity if they really want to combat al Qaeda in the region with a maximum of efficiency,” Boualem Ghomrassa, an Algerian security analyst and journalist, told Reuters.
He said countries in the region wanted to step in now before the militants’ income from kidnapping people for ransom — believed by security analysts to run into millions of dollars — allows them to pose an even greater security threat.
Regional governments are also trying to deflect pressure from Europe and the United States to tackle the problem. “The four countries are against foreign involvement in the region,” Ghomrassa said.
AQIM has been waging a campaign of bombings and shootings, primarily along Algeria’s Mediterranean coast.
A security crackdown has reduced its ability to mount attacks there, forcing it to switch its focus to the Sahara, with its vast empty spaces, porous borders and weak government control.
The group’s most high profile activity in the Sahara has been kidnapping. AQIM said it kidnapped 32 foreign tourists in 2003, and more recently two Austrian tourists in Tunisia in early 2008.
It also claimed responsibility for kidnapping two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists in the past five months. The two diplomats and two of the tourists were released in Mali last month. The remaining hostages are a Swiss and a Briton.
Mali’s armed forces last week captured four AQIM militants after a clash near the border with Algeria, a security source in Mali’s capital told Reuters. (Editing by Giles Elgood)