Algiers: Al Qaeda insurgents killed 11 Algerian paramilitary police in a desert ambush on Wednesday, a newspaper and a security source said, in the deadliest attack the group has mounted so deep in the Sahara.
The attack could be a sign that the militants are becoming a more potent force in the Sahara desert, a vast and thinly-policed region which security experts say al Qaeda wants to turn into a new battleground.
A convoy of gendarmes, or paramilitary police, was attacked by insurgents at dawn in an ambush in the Tamanrasset region, near Algeria`s border with Mali, Algeria`s El Watan newspaper reported on its Internet site www.elwatan.dz.
There was no official confirmation of the report, but a government security source, who did not want to be identified, said: "I can confirm the information which was given on the 11 gendarmes."
The scene of the ambush is not close to any of energy exporter Algeria`s major oil and gas fields.
The ambush took place in the same region where Algeria and some neighbouring states this year set up a joint military headquarters designed to combat the threat from al Qaeda in the Sahara.
Militants fighting under the banner of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have been shifting the focus of their campaign from Algeria`s Mediterranean coast, where they are being squeezed out by security forces, to the Sahara.
Security experts say al Qaeda is building a base in the desert region that straddles the borders of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger where its exploits the porous borders, patchy security and networks of drug traffickers.
However, until now the militants have not been known to mount large-scale attacks. They have concentrated instead on kidnapping foreigners in exchange for ransom payments.
The group`s biggest known attacks to date in the Sahara were the shooting dead of a US aid worker in Mauritania`s capital in June last year and a suicide bombing on the French embassy there in August that injured three people.