REBEL RECONNAISSANCE: An anti- Gaddafi fighter looks into the cockpit of a damaged aircraft outside the Khamis Brigade's military base, which was destroyed during a Nato air strike yesterday . Picture: REUTERS

THE violent conflict in Libya has turned the neighbouring Sahel desert into a powder keg, regional powers said yesterday in Algiers, as former leader Muammar Gaddafi's arsenal risks being snapped up by al- Qaeda's local franchise.

"The region has been turned into a powder keg," Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told counterparts from Algeria, Mali and Mauritania - the Sahel countries most threatened by the group known as al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb .

The Sahel security conference, the first of its kind, was decided months ago but convened only days after the toppling of the 42-year-old Gaddafi regime by rebels.

Algeria and other Libyan neighbours have expressed fears that the ousted Libyan leader's arsenal and remaining loyalists would be scattered across the Sahel, an 8- million-square-kilometre desert area south of the Sahara.

Mr Bazoum said half a ton of Semtex explosive was seized in Niger in June, and warned that there might have been more, as well as surface- to-air missiles.

"We don't want the Sahel to become a warzone," Malian Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye said. Reinforcing security was the region's responsibility, he said .

French, American and British delegates speaking at the conference agreed that the military effort should be led by the region.

"We recognise that this effort must be led by the governments of the region," said Shari Villarosa, from the office of the co-ordinator for counterterrorism at the US state department.

Responding to rumours this week, Niger has denied Mr Gaddafi is in the landlocked former French colony. Meanwhile, Libya's former rebels yesterday said they had Mr Gaddafi surrounded, and it was only a matter of time until he was captured or killed.

A top spokesman for Tripoli's new military council, Anis Sharif, would not say where Mr Gaddafi had been found, but said he was still in Libya . Sapa-AFP