al-Qaeda's offshoot in North Africa has snatched surface-to-air missiles from an arsenal in Libya during the civil strife there, Chad's president said in an interview to be published March 28.
Idriss Deby Itno did not say how many were stolen, but told the African weekly Jeune Afrique that he was "100 percent sure" of his assertion.
"The Islamists of al-Qaida took advantage of the pillaging of arsenals in the rebel zone to acquire arms, including surface-to-air missiles, which were then smuggled into their sanctuaries in Tenere," a desert region of the Sahara that stretches from northeast Niger to western Chad, Deby said in the interview.
"This is very serious. AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) is becoming a genuine army, the best equipped in the region," he said.
Elsewhere in the interview, Chad's president backed the assertion by his neighbor and erstwhile enemy, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, that the protests in Libya have been driven in part by Al Qaeda.
"There is a partial truth in what he says," Deby said. "Up to what point? I don't know. But I am certain that AQIM took an active part in the uprising."
After years of tension between the two nations, which were at war during part of the 1980s, Deby has more recently maintained good relations with Gadhafi.
The Chadian leader described the international military intervention in Libya, launched a week ago by the United States, France and Britain, as a "hasty decision."
"It could have heavy consequences for the stability of the region and the spread of terrorism in Europe, the Mediterranean and the rest of Africa," he cautioned.
Deby denied assertions that mercenaries had been recruited in Chad to fight for Kadhafi, though some of the several thousand Chad nationals in Libya may have joined the fight "on their own."
AQIM originated as an armed Islamist resistance movement to the secular Algerian government.
Today, it operates mainly in Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, where it has attacked military targets and taken civilian hostages.