(Refiles to fix reference to victim in paragraph 3)
* Former Malian rebel killed in desert north
* Ex-rebel linked to Libyan weapons but cause of death unclear
BAMAKO, Aug 26 (Reuters) - An influential former Malian rebel, believed to have been involved in the trade of looted weapons from Libya, has been killed in the north of the country, officials said on Friday.
It was not immediately clear how Ibrahim Ag Bahanga was killed, with one version of events blaming an accident while several other sources said he had been involved in a row with fellow smugglers ferrying weapons back from Libya.
The death of Bahanga, one of the leaders of the last Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali before he went into exile in Libya, follows widespread fears that Libya’s conflict will spill over into the remote regions of Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania.
Malian Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga confirmed Bahanga’s death but, having heard both accounts, said he could not be sure how he had been killed.
However, a military source and a member of Bahanga’s Tuareg tribe, both of whom asked not to be named, said he had been killed in an argument.
“It was during a row with one of his own men when someone shot him near the border with Mali and Niger,” the military source told Reuters.
“He had got his hands on lots of weapons in Libya, where they are fighting and he hid them on the border with Algeria and Niger. He was recruiting fighters to launch a new rebellion in Kidal,” the military source added, referring to the northern Malian town that was a base for previous uprisings.
Bahanga was one of the founders of the “May 23 Alliance”, a rebellion that was launched in northern Mali in 2006. He never fully accepted peace deals and spent several years in exile in Libya before returning to Mali last year.
Regional governments fear that the desert zones of Mali, Niger and Chad, already awash with guns and a plethora of armed groups and smugglers, will become even more lawless due to an influx of weapons and fighters from Libya’s conflict.
Fugitive Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi had a history of close ties with the various tribes and rebel groups of the Sahara and was accused of both fomenting and seeking to resolve uprisings to increase his regional influence.
Groups linked to al Qaeda increasingly operate in the zone and have raised their influence through a series of high profile kidnappings of foreigners in recent years. (Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis)