Saturday, January 31, 2009

Disappeared In Niger: UN envoy Robert Fowler, his assistant and driver may be held by rebels

UN envoy missing in Niger

Photo: Missing UN envoy Robert Fowler (Reuters) Source: report by Steven Edwards, Canwest News Service published Saturday, January 31, 2009. Copy:
Missing UN envoy likely alive: diplomat

Evidence has emerged suggesting Robert Fowler -- the Canadian United Nations envoy who disappeared last month in Niger with his Canadian assistant and locally hired driver-- is alive, a UN Security Council diplomat said yesterday.

Hope remains that Louis Guay, the Foreign Affairs official who accompanied Mr. Fowler to the west African country, and their driver Soumana Mounkaila of Niger are also alive, officials said.

The trio disappeared on Dec. 14 as they returned to the Niger capital of Niamey after visiting a Canadian-run gold mine in the western part of the country -- and no word has emerged publicly about their fate until now.

"There has been evidence some days ago that he was alive," the Security Council diplomat said of Mr. Fowler. "All these issues are very complicated." The diplomat did not want to be identified.

UN Secretary General Ban Kimoon spoke privately late last week with Mr. Fowler's wife, Mary, to update her on what was being done to locate the three men, said Farhan Haq, a UN spokesman.

Speculation has been increasingly focused on the possibility that operatives with -- or connected to -- the extremist group al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had come to hold the trio.

The involvement of U.S. intelligence officials in the search also suggested that suspicion focused on an internationally active group such as AQIM. "I didn't know that people thought he wasn't alive," said one intelligence officer yesterday.

AQIM's involvement appeared increasingly likely following the abduction last week of four European tourists in the northeast part of Mali, close to the Niger border. Mali is where the extremist group last year held two Austrian tourists they had abducted in Tunisia in February before releasing them in October after demanding an $8-million ransom payment.

The kidnappers of the four Europeans did so in a manner that was similar to that suggested by evidence left at the scene where Mr. Fowler and his colleagues disappeared about 45 kilometres northeast of Niamey.

The kidnappers of the Europeans abandoned the tourists' two all-terrain vehicles and released one of their local tour-guide drivers after beating him. Similarly, the UNmarked vehicle carrying Messrs. Fowler, Guay and Mounkaila was abandoned with such personal effects as cellphones left inside.

Retired from the Canadian diplomatic corps, Mr. Fowler, a father of three, was the longest-serving Canadian ambassador to the UN, is a former deputy defence minister, and has advised several prime ministers. Mr. Guay, a father of five, had worked most recently on the Sudan desk at the Department of Foreign Affairs.