Libyan leader Muamer Gaddafi has recruited some 800 Tuareg separatist fighters from Niger, Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso to quash a popular uprising against his regime, security sources said Thursday.
"Eight hundred Tuareg originating from Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso have been recruited by Libya to fight on Gaddhafi's side," a Malian security source told AFP.
"We have the same information," said a Niger security source, adding that among the 800, only a "small handful are from Algeria and Burkina Faso."
"The troops are mainly made up of Malian and Niger Tuareg," she said.
In Mali, a small, discreet recruitment office has been set up in a Bamako hotel belonging to Libya where a Libyan diplomat acts as a recruiting agent, an AFP journalist witnessed.
But security sources said recruitment was also taking place in parts of the Sahel.
"Those who are leaving now are tempted by the easy earnings. It is they who we call mercenaries," said Abdou Salam Ag Assalat, president of the Kidal Regional Assembly in north-eastern Mali.
"Among these youths there are former Malian and Niger Tuareg rebels who took up arms in Mali in 2006 and 2008," he added.
Salam Ag Assalat said Tuesday there had been a massive movement of young Tuareg towards Libya, without giving numbers.
On the other hand "Tuareg civilians living in Libya want to flee the fighting" and return home to Mali, he said.
The official added that some 200 Malian Tuareg had been granted safe passage by their embassy in Libya to return to northern Mali by road via Algeria.
A charity for nomadic Tuareg, Tekelte, has expressed concern about retaliation against members of this community in Libya because of the presence of those fighting alongside Gaddafi's supporters.
In a statement the association called on "the international community to protect the Tuareg in Libya who are not mercenaries."
The Tuareg community is composed of some 1.5 million people spread across Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali and Niger. Tuareg rebels have fought the authorities in Mali and Niger sporadically since the 1990s.