Kidal - Authorities and non-governmental organisations in Mali have been making preparations for the return of fighters of Malian origin who took Libyan nationality and fought for Muammar Gaddafi.
“This is normal, that we welcome our brothers,” one businessman said.
Tents have been put up about 30 kilometres north of Kidal in the north-east, the main town in a region of the same name bordering on Algeria.
A collection of funds has been launched by a committee set up to welcome home the former fighters, who are expected during the next few days, though no timetable has been issued nor any statement about how many are expected back.
Hundreds of Tuaregs from Mali and neighbouring Niger went to Libya in the 1990s and became part of the army, granted Libyan nationality.
There is no fixed amount for the collection. “It's whatever you can afford. I gave 200 000 CFA francs (305 euros/414 dollars). Really, people give what they can,” said a man who works in Kidal and gave his name only as Attaher.
The goal, according to the governor's office in Kidal, is to provide a “worthy” homecoming for these “sons of the country”.
Mohamed Ouchar, a regional businessman, has a brother among those coming home. “He was in Gaddafi's army, with Libyan nationality. This is normal, that we welcome our brothers” without hostility, he added.
“We have taken the bull by the horns. Instead of letting them disappear into the wilds where they will be a source of danger, we have decided to welcome them with their weapons and baggage the better to make them a part of society,” said a source in the governor's office who asked not to be named.
The general staff of Mali's army has ordered that former fighters who return with their weapons be “gently disarmed”.
“This is the first time that we're organising the return of a military convoy,” said Ibrahim Ould Mohamed of Stop Arms, an NGO that is active against the proliferation of arms in the Sahel. He added that the ex-soldiers will most likely be returning with “civilians, members of their families.”
Ould Mohamed believed the returnees could also include mercenaries recruited at the beginning in mid-February of the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi, who was toppled and has gone into hiding after more than six months of civil war.
Once Gaddafi's regime crumbled, men who had fought for him set out across the desert tracks of the Sahel for regions they came from, but they have been trained in warfare and given weapons, raising fears for safety and stability in a region already confronted with terrorism in the shape of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Ould Mohamed said that if the fighters return to Mali, “it is not a problem. Provided they are coming back with good intentions, we should open our arms. There's no point in pouring fuel on the fire.”
“But we must rapidly find them something to do, so that they are not tempted by adventure,” he warned.
That view is shared by another official in a Kidal NGO, who is also a member of the committee to welcome the Malians from Libya. “It's the future of the whole region which is at stake if we don't hold out our hands to greet these returning brothers (because) the Sahel today is a powderkeg,” he said, asking not to be named.
Representatives of the government and local communities have entered into discussions with other Malians, civilians as well as ex-fighters, who have already returned from Libya.
One Malian government minister felt nevertheless that Libya's ruling National Transitional Council should take account of these former members of the Libyan army of Malian origin.
“They're Libyans, all the same. It's up to the NTC to play the card of national reconciliation and to accept them, so that the Sahel, already destabilised, doesn't get worse,” he said. - Sapa-AFP