Jihadi fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan are training Islamist groups in northern Mali, Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou warned Thursday, as world powers discussed military intervention.
"We have information on the presence of Afghans and Pakistanis in northern Mali... They are believed to be working as instructors," he told the France 24 news channel.
"They are the ones who are training those who have been recruited across various west African countries," said Issoufou, whose country shares a long and porous desert border with Mali.
Mali, once considered a beacon of democracy in western Africa, has plunged into chaos since the collapse of Moamer Kadhafi's regime in Libya last year scattered mercenaries and weapons across the Sahel.
Tuareg rebels rekindled their decades-old struggle for independence in January and conquered the entire northern half of Mali virtually unopposed in March, after renegade soldiers who accused then-president Amadou Toumani Toure of failing to do enough to fight the rebellion toppled his regime.
The Tuareg rebels fought alongside a previously unknown Islamist group called Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), which is believed to be backed by Al Qaeda's north African branch.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been active for years in northern Mali, where it has launched attacks against government army positions, kidnapped foreigners and allegedly benefitted from drug running.
France TF1 channel aired amateur footage shot in the fabled northern Malian town of Timbuktu that purportedly shows Abou Zeid, an Algerian considered one of the top AQIM leaders driving a pick-up truck.
Issoufou said the Islamist groups are part of a global network spanning much of Africa and reaching all the way to Afghanistan.
"I think all these organisations cooperate amongst themselves, whether the Shebab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, AQIM in Algeria and in the Sahel in general, all the way to Afghanistan," he said.
"Our concern is that the Sahel not become a new Afghanistan."
The comments came as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded the alarm Thursday over the continuing threat posed by Al Qaeda even in the wake of the killing of its mastermind, Osama bin Laden.
"The core of Al-Qaeda that carried out the 9/11 attacks may be on the path to defeat, but the threat has spread, becoming more geographically diverse," Clinton said in an opening address to the Global Counterterrorism Forum in Istanbul.
Government troops have no control over Mali's north, a territory larger than France, heightening fears in the region and beyond that the landlocked country could become a new global haven for Al Qaeda.
Talks on a possible military intervention in Mali opened Thursday in Abidjan between officials from the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Participants at the talks will discuss whether to ask the UN Security Council to authorise military action in Mali, said Ivory Coast Foreign Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of West African regional bloc ECOWAS.
Issoufou said he feared the hardline Islamist groups regrouping in northern Mali could spread to his country, which has also been hit by AQIM attacks in recent years.
"These groups in northern Mali are continuing to get their supply of weapons from southwestern Libya," he said.
He also said he could not rule out a military intervention in Mali, stressing however that it should be "a last resort."