NIAMEY (Reuters) - Leaders of the Tuareg people in Niger and Mali are urging countrymen who fought in Muammar Gaddafi's army to stay in Libya and rally to its new rulers rather than head south to their fragile, poverty-stricken homelands.
The return of thousands of armed Tuareg fighters could, they fear, be devastating to a region which has suffered years of rebellions and is now struggling to counter local al Qaeda allies plying the lucrative trade of foreign hostages.
The Tuareg leaders said they won assurances from Libya's interim council early last month that Tuareg members of the regular army would not be targeted, but noted that they and other Africans in Libya still faced the threat of reprisals.
"We do not doubt our partners in (Libya's) National Transitional Council (NTC) or their will to move forward, but war is war ... there are always uncontrollable elements," said Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, a Malian parliament deputy for the northern town of Bourem.
"The NTC must be up to the task, and above all prevent score-settling," Assaleh, head of a "contact group" of 13 prominent Malian and Nigerien Tuaregs in touch with the NTC, told Reuters in the Nigerien capital Niamey.
Assaleh, said his group was using its contacts in Libya to urge Tuareg fighters in the few remaining pro-Gaddafi bastions such as Sabha in the southwest to lay down arms and back the NTC "without bloodshed."
Traditionally one of the largest nomadic groups of the Sahara, the Tuaregs are found across west and north Africa.
Tens of thousands from Mali and Niger settled decades ago in Gaddafi's Libya, leaving behind countries where resources such as uranium and gold have yet to help populations which in some cases earn little more than a dollar a day per head.
As Gaddafi's regime crumbled, Tuaregs and other African migrants working in Libya have faced violent attacks which appear to be motivated either by simple racism or the belief among many Libyans that they are pro-Gaddafi mercenaries.
Tuareg leaders played down media reports of Africans racing to Libya earlier this year to fight as mercenaries for Gaddafi, arguing the bigger issue was the tens of thousands of Tuaregs employed for years in the regular army.
"We had to ... set up contacts between the NTC and the Malian and Nigerien Tuaregs, to create trust so that tomorrow they (the Tuareg army members) don't leave with their weapons and come back to Niger and Mali," said Mohamed Anacko, head of the Agadez regional council in Niger's north.
"Niger and Mali are very fragile states -- they could not take such an influx because we would be talking about hundreds of thousands of people," he said, including the families of Tuareg soldiers in Libya who return alongside them.
Agadez region -- whose once thriving desert tourism industry has crashed because of a spate of al Qaeda-linked kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahel region -- has already taken back about 80,000 migrants fleeing Libya.
But Assaleh said that so far, barely one hundred of those were soldiers in Gaddafi's army. "We tell them all the time to return to their barracks (in Libya)," he said.
Fathi Ben Khalifa, Netherlands-based member of the anti-Gaddafi Libyan Working Group, confirmed that he was working with both the NTC and Tuareg leaders outside Libya to protect Tuaregs in the country.
"A lot of the Tuareg people were involved with the Gaddafi military so our friends from Mali and Niger, they are helping us to solve the problem," he told Reuters by telephone.
"A lot of young people were involved with Gaddafi. They received some orders from officers and they just obey," he said, adding that many had since defected and fewer than 100 Tuaregs were believed to be still fighting for Gaddafi.
Assaleh predicted it would take two to three weeks before greater law and order was restored in Libya and the violence against Tuaregs and other Africans abated.
Yet for now, those returning to their home country from Libya said hundreds were hiding in Libya too scared to go out in public for fear of being attacked by anti-Gaddafi forces.
"All I know is hundreds of Nigeriens, either those who fought for Gaddafi or just plain laborers, are holed up in towns there too scared to go out," said Soumaila Mamane, a 35-year-old Nigerien who returned to Niger on Friday via Sabha.
"For the rebels, the blacks and Tuaregs are all pro-Gaddafi and they don't hesitate to shoot at them."
(Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalaatchi in Agadez and Emma Farge in Libya; writing by Mark John)