ALGIERS // Algerian security forces have found a large cache of weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles, which they believe were smuggled in from Libya, a security source said on Saturday.
The find follows warnings from governments in the region that instability in Libya after the end of Muammar Qaddafi's rule was allowing weapons taken from Qaddafi's arsenal to fall into the hands of Al Qaeda's north African branch and other insurgent groups across the Sahara desert.
The weapons cache was discovered in the desert about 60 kilometres south of In Amenas, an energy-producing Algerian region near the border with Libya, said the source.
The source said the cache was located after a tip-off from a smuggler who had been arrested. He said it contained a "large quantity" of arms including the shoulder-launched missiles - a weapon which, in some variations, could be used to bring down an aircraft.
"This weapons seizure shows that the chaos in Libya is dangerous for the whole region," the source said.
There was no official confirmation of the discovery from the Algerian government and there was no way of independently verifying the source's account.
Western security experts tracking arms which have disappeared from Qaddafi's looted arms depots say the shoulder-fired missiles - also known as man-portable air defence systems, or Manpads - are one of their biggest concerns because they could be used with relative ease by insurgent groups.
Qaddafi's forces had about 20,000 of the missiles, according to a US government task force which is trying to locate the missiles. The task force said most of the missiles were still inside Libya, in the hands of militias loosely allied to the interim leadership that took over after Qaddafi's rule was overthrown last year.
Security officials in North Africa say the worst-case scenario was that Al Qaeda's north African wing, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, could use one of the missiles to bring down a commercial airliner coming in to land or taking off at an airport somewhere in North Africa.
The group is waging a long-running insurgency against Algeria's government. It also carries out kidnappings, ambushes and bomb attacks on western targets in the Sahel, a large volatile band that straddles the borders of Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Speaking in Geneva last week, a UN panel of experts on Libya said the lack of strong central government control in Libya was making it difficult to track down the missing Manpads.
"People are concerned and they are right," said one panel member. "There is certainly weapons traffic into the Sahel. It is a large desert area with limited [border] controls."
Algeria has been one of the region's most vocal states in warning of the security impact of Qaddafi's fall. The revolt has left large quantities of weapons unsecured and a fragile interim government that is struggling to impose its authority and control the country's borders.
However, Libyan officials said they were working to secure the missing weapons and have accused Algeria of exaggerating the threat.
They said its neighbour was against the revolt in Libya and was now using the security issue to undermine the new leadership in Tripoli, allegations that Algerian officials have denied.