They are the Kurds of Africa, an ancient stateless people with their own language, a minority spread across several countries, weathered by their harsh surroundings.

And like the Kurds, the Tuareg are now at the center of international attention. Some are helping Moammar Gadhafi loyalists escape Libya across the endless expanses of the Sahel. Many more are trapped in Libya, trying to escape its post-revolutionary chaos.

Gadhafi often turned to the nomadic Tuareg to bolster his forces and his attempts to manipulate and destabilize the poor countries to the south of Libya: Niger, Chad and Mali. The Tuareg were capable mercenaries. And there was a hint of romance in the arrangement -- Gadhafi has always painted himself as a desert Bedouin.

Peter Gwin, a journalist with National Geographic, has visited Tuareg areas of Mali and Niger frequently. He says one Tuareg who had visited many Libyan army bases told him that even before the uprising against Gadhafi began there were some 10,000 Tuareg fighters in the Libyan military.

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In the heart of the Sahara Desert and amidst of some of the world’s biggest uranium reserves, terrorists, smugglers and bandits threaten to seize control of northern parts of Mali and Niger.

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