By CNN's Tim Lister
The arrival in Algeria of Moammar Gadhafi's wife and three of his children seems likely to become yet another thorny issue in an already prickly relationship between Libya's rebel leadership and the Algerian government.
The two sides have been at odds since officials of the National Transitional Council accused Algeria of supporting Gadhafi – a claim denied by the Algerians, who say they are neutral in the Libyan conflict. But Algeria is the only one of Libya's North African neighbors yet to recognize the NTC as Libya's legitimate authority and last week protested to the United Nations over damage done to the Algerian embassy in Tripoli.
Some rebel officials have already complained about Gadhafi family members being allowed to cross the border, which Algeria has described as a humanitarian gesture.
In a sharply worded statement reported by Reuters Tuesday, NTC spokesman Mahmoud Shamman said Libya's new rulers had "promised to provide a just trial to all those criminals and therefore we consider this an act of aggression."
"We are warning anybody not to shelter Gadhafi and his sons," Shammam said. "We are going after them in any place to find them and arrest them," he said.
According to the Algerian Press Service, Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci met Mahmoud Jibril, the chairman of the NTC's Executive Committee, during an Arab League meeting in Cairo Monday. Few other details were available, but diplomats say it's likely the two want to avoid a worsening diplomatic spat as the rebels try to consolidate their position.
Last week, Algeria filed a protest with the United Nations over attacks on its embassy in the Tripoli. The Algerian news agency reported that several vehicles at the embassy had been damaged or stolen soon after the rebels captured most of Tripoli. In sometimes hysterical tones, Algerian newspapers have reported that criminals and members of radical Islamist groups have joined the Libyan rebels.
Fueling Algerian unease is the prospect of prolonged instability in Libya. Although Algeria had its differences with the Gadhafi regime, there was co-operation against Islamic extremism and especially against the growing presence of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM has staged several attacks on police and the military in the south of Algeria in recent months, and last week launched one of its boldest attacks yet – killing eighteen officers and two civilians in a suicide bombing of a military academy near Algiers.
The Gadhafi regime – which itself fought a long battle against the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – recognized Algerian concerns. In 2006, there was a breakthrough accord between the two neighbors during a visit to Algiers by a senior Libyan security official, General Salah Rajab El-Mismari. The two sides pledged to delineate their desert border (which is more than 1,000 kilometers long) and resurrected a Joint Commission on Security to tackle "organized crime, terrorism, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and migration flows." The absence of an agreed border had given smugglers and terrorist cells room to breathe, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks, and had become "a rising cause of concern not just for Algeria but for all the greater Sahel countries."
The Algerian military fought a long and vicious war against an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s in which an estimated 200,000 people – most of them civilians – were killed.
Another common cause for Gadhafi's Libya and Algeria was dealing with their restive Berber minorities. The Berber are a non-Arab people who live in mountainous regions in western Libya, eastern Algeria and parts of Tunisia and Morocco. Their stateless plight frequently leads to comparisons with the Kurds.
Kabylie - a mountainous, predominantly Berber area south and east of Algiers - has long taxed Algerian security forces. Kidnappings, smuggling, human trafficking and the presence of al Qaeda cells have made the area a constant headache to the government. Crime and terror have often mixed, according to one leaked US diplomatic cable from 2007 published by Wikileaks. The cable, from the US embassy in Algiers, said that the "Salafist "emir" Mokhtar Belmokhtar allegedly led a smuggling ring before he and his entire group joined AQIM."
There were several devastating suicide bombings in the region in 2008 and 2009, leading the US embassy to report at the end of 2009 that "there are terror-related attacks almost daily now, usually in the mountains east of Algiers."
Gadhafi regime officials persistently denied the existence of any Berber community in Libya and to accuse US diplomats of "unacceptable interference" in Libya's domestic affairs when they tried to visit Berber areas in the western mountains (an area that recently provided some of the most effective military action against Gadhafi forces.) One Libyan official was quoted in a US embassy cable as saying "this issue (the Berbers) is too sensitive for us (Libya) to discuss".
As the region shook off Gadhafi's control this spring, the Berbers began promoting their distinct language and cultural heritage with much greater confidence. Journalists in the Nafusa mountains even reported the Berber's Amazigh flag flying in several towns.
Algeria is unlikely to look fondly on an increasingly assertive Berber identity in its eastern neighbor, nor a lack of authority on the other side of one of the most remote frontiers in the world. For their part, the NTC has no desire to see remnants of the Gadhafi regime regrouping in a neighboring state.