|Libyan secret services have discovered a desert operations camp belonging to a hardline Algerian Islamic militant group linked to al Qaeda, a French newspaper said on Sunday.
The report, if true, will fuel U.S. concerns that Islamic militants are seeking new havens in the inhospitable terrain of the Sahara desert, seen as a potentially rich recruiting ground because of weak national governance and lax border patrols.
Le Journal du Dimanche, quoting a source close to the counter-espionage services of a European country, said Libyan agents found the GSPC camp 10 days ago in the mountainous region of Tibesti, which spans Libya's southern border with Chad.
The French newspaper said the GSPC -- the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat -- was recruiting actively in the Tibesti region and buying arms and vehicles with ransom money paid for the release of European tourists taken hostage in the Algerian Sahara in 2003.
U.S. officials have said the GSPC, as it is known in French, is trying to re-arm and recruit after being largely forced out of Algeria. The armies of Chad, Mali and Niger have either killed or chased dozens of GSPC members out of their countries.
U.S. special forces have been training local troops in the region to combat Islamic militants like the GSPC, which is fighting to replace the Algerian government with a purist Islamic state and has declared war on foreign individuals and companies in the oil-rich state.
GSPC offered public support in 2003 to al Qaeda after having been in private contact with the Islamic extremist network of Osama bin Laden since the late 1990s, security experts say.
GSPC leader Nabil Sahraoui -- who trained at a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan in the late 1990s -- was killed in June in a gun battle with the Algerian army, in what analysts called a blow to al Qaeda's ambitions in north Africa.
U.S. officials fear al Qaeda cells driven out of Afghanistan and parts of the Middle East could be seeking new havens in the Sahara region.
The GSPC's second in command, Amari Saifi, alias Abderrazak el Para, is the only senior GSPC member still alive, and he is being held by Chadian rebels who are negotiating his transfer to Algerian authorities.
Violence has fallen sharply in Algeria over the past two years as militants surrender and armed forces attack rebel hideouts. More than 150,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since an Islamic uprising began in 1992, human rights groups say.