* Weapons smuggled from Libya to Mali
* Weapons destined for al Qaeda, security official says
* Al Qaeda believed to have acquired SAM-7 missiles
By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, April 4 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda is exploiting the conflict in Libya to acquire weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, and smuggle them to a stronghold in northern Mali, a security official from neighbouring Algeria told Reuters.
The official said a convoy of eight Toyota pick-up trucks left eastern Libya, crossed into Chad and then Niger, and from there into northern Mali where in the past few days it delivered a cargo of weapons.
He said the weapons included Russian-made RPG-7 anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikov heavy machine guns, Kalashnikov rifles, explosives and ammunition.
He also said he had information that al Qaeda’s north African wing, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had acquired from Libya Russian-made shoulder-fired Strela surface-to-air missiles known by the NATO designation SAM-7.
“A convoy of eight Toyotas full of weapons travelled a few days ago through Chad and Niger and reached northern Mali,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The weapons included RPG-7s, FMPK (Kalashnikov heavy machine guns), Kalashnikovs, explosives and ammunition ... and we know that this is not the first convoy and that it is still ongoing,” the official told Reuters.
“Several military barracks have been pillaged in this region (eastern Libya) with their arsenals and weapons stores and the elements of AQIM who were present could not have failed to profit from this opportunity.”
“AQIM, which has maintained excellent relations with smugglers who used to cross Libya from all directions without the slightest difficulty, will probably give them the task of bringing it the weapons,” said the official.
The official said that al Qaeda was exploiting disarray among forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and had also infiltrated the anti-Gaddafi rebels in eastern Libya.
The rebels deny any ties to al Qaeda. U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, said last week intelligence showed only “flickers” of an al Qaeda presence in Libya, with no significant role in the Libyan uprising.
“AQIM ... is taking advantage by acquiring the most sophisticated weapons such as SAM-7s (surface-to-air missiles), which are equivalent to Stingers,” he said, referring to a missile system used by the U.S. military.
Algeria has been fighting a nearly two-decade insurgency by Islamist militants who in the past few years have been operating under the banner of al Qaeda. Algeria’s security forces also monitor al Qaeda’s activities outside its borders.
The security official said the Western coalition which has intervened in Libya had to confront the possibility that if Gaddafi’s regime falls, al Qaeda could exploit the resulting chaos to extend its influence to the Mediterranean coast.
“If the Gaddafi regime goes, it is the whole of Libya — in terms of a country which has watertight borders and security and customs services which used to control these borders — which will disappear, at least for a good time, long enough for AQIM to re-deploy as far as the Libyan Mediterranean.”
“In the case of Libya, the coalition forces must make an urgent choice. To allow chaos to settle in, which will necessitate ... a ground intervention with the aim of limiting the unavoidable advance of AQIM towards the southern coast of the Mediterranean, or to preserve the Libyan regime, with or without Gaddafi, to restore the pre-uprising security situation,” the official told Reuters. (Editing by Christian Lowe and Jon Hemming)