09/06/2011 08:31 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2011

Gaddafi's Recruits From Mali And Niger: National Geographic Takes A Look At The Tuareg, Lost Lords Of The Sahara (PHOTOS)

In the September 2011 issue of National Geographic, Peter Gwin accompanies Tuareg rebels on a walk through a remote corner of the world. For years, the Sahara Desert nomads have had ties with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who aided many of their uprisings and recruited thousands of them as mercenaries in the Libyan army. Ethnically Tuareg rebels also fight in the Movement of Nigeriens for Justice (MNJ), seeking a share of the uranium deposits mined from their grazing lands by the government of Niger. As Gwin reports:

The rebel commander, his face hidden behind a dark turban, leads the way over the soft sand, scorched black in places by exploded mortar shells and littered with detritus from a series of battles waged here, on a children's soccer field.

With nearly every stride, our feet crunch spent rifle cartridges. "Step in my steps," he cautions, noting that the Niger army had mined the area, where there had been a school for Tuareg. His men removed some of the devices; others remained lost in the shifting sands. "Maybe they are buried too deep to explode if you step on one."

It is late afternoon in the dry season, and the temperature has finally slipped below 100°F. The beige dunes stretching to the north begin to take on a pink hue, and the shadows from the steep ridges to the southwest are spreading across the valley floor. In this lonely valley called Tazerzaït, where the Aïr Massif meets the great sand seas of the Sahara, the commander's men had won the greatest victory of their two-year rebellion against the Niger government.

The rebels, all ethnic Tuareg, descend from the fierce nomads who for several centuries dominated the lucrative caravan trade in gold, spices, and slaves that crisscrossed this desolate region of North Africa. Fighting under the banner of the Movement of Nigeriens for Justice (MNJ) and supported in part by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, they had captured 72 government soldiers at Tazerzaït and renewed their demands that the government share revenue derived from another source of treasure: uranium mined on Tuareg lands. In a show of goodwill the Tuareg released all of their prisoners—except one. "He is a war criminal," the commander says.

See the full gallery by photographer Brent Stirton here.

The full article by Peter Gwin appears in the August 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands now.

Take a look at photographs of the Tuareg below. All photos and captions are shown courtesy of National Geographic.

The Sahara's Tuareg