Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Niger kidnapping: Mujahedeen fighters released in exchange for diplomats

From Canwest News Service by Steven Edwards 28 April, 2009 (via Calgary Herald):
Mujahedeen fighters released in exchange for diplomats: Sources

Mujahedeen fighters released in exchange for diplomats

Photo: Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler (right), UN special envoy to Niger, and his assistant Louis Guay are pictured after they were released along with two European tourists by Al-Qaeda-linked captors after months as hostages on Thursday.
Photograph by: Habib Kouyate, AFP/Getty Images

UNITED NATIONS — An Algerian terror suspect, who has fought in Afghanistan, was among four jailed "mujahedeen" fighters released to al-Qaida's North Africa branch in exchange for two Canadian diplomats and two European women, Canwest News has been told.

Two of the other three terror suspects were Mauritanian, while the remaining one was either Jordanian or Syrian, sources in North Africa with some knowledge of the largely secret deal say.

The diplomats, former Canadian ambassador to the UN Robert Fowler, and Foreign Affairs Department official Louis Guay, arrived back in Canada Tuesday after spending several days undergoing medical check-ups and debriefing in Germany since al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) released them in Mali last week.

A faction of the group held the pair hostage in the land-locked Sahel state following their kidnapping Dec. 14 in neighbouring Niger, where they had been on a UN mission.

Fowler declined comment on his ordeal when reached at his Ottawa home Tuesday.

The released Algerian al-Qaida member, Oussama Alboumerdassi, fought with the then U.S.-backed mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, staying on until 1992, according to a North African al-Qaida observer with close links to people involved in the effort to free the Canadians.

The information is backed by a report published Tuesday in Ennahar, a daily newspaper based in the Algerian capital of Algiers. The paper promotes itself as being independent of government.

Regional security sources provided the nationalities of the other three, according to the al-Qaida expert, while Ennahar says all four had been jailed in Mali since February 2008.

At the heart of the negotiations seeking the release of the hostages were Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and a relative of Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, identified as Mauritanian businessman Abdallah Chaffei, the newspaper reported.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper specifically thanked both Mali and Burkina Faso during a press conference last Wednesday in which he announced the Canadians' release

Indeed, al-Qaida initially said it would release the pair and the European women — two of four tourists snatched in Mali by the terrorist group in January — in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou, a Western source close to the talks told Canwest News Service.

Insisting the Conservative government had stuck to its policy of neither paying a ransom nor freeing prisoners for hostages, Harper left open the possibility other countries had fronted a deal.

Saif al-Islam, who heads the Gaddafi Foundation charity, mediated last year in the case of two Austrians held by AQIM in Mali.

But insiders say Guay himself was also personally known to Libyan officials, having visited the country several times as he sought to get Canada invited to peace talks focused on the border between Chad and the Darfur region of neighbouring Sudan.

A ransom of $2 million was paid for the Austrians' freedom, a source close to those talks told Canwest.

In talks seeking freedom for the Canadians and Europeans, Ennahar says Chaffei joined Saif al-Islam after Burkina Faso had "taken the initiative" to manage delivery of a cash ransom that had emerged as a demand.

Their presence would have enabled Canadian and UN investigators, who had been dispatched to the region, to maintain arm's length from the talks, analysts believe.

A former U.S. ambassador to the region told Canwest News Service that the Burkina Faso president has, in recent years, gained a reputation for being "very helpful" to the West. But he has in the past been linked to diamond smuggling that benefited regional terrorists — hence his "likely connections" to AQIM, according to one regional source.

But the real sticking block was the al-Qaida demand for a prisoner exchange, which Canwest News revealed several weeks after the Canadians had been kidnapped, basing the report on Western sources.

Helping solve that fell to Mali President Amadou Toure, according to Ennahar.

"AQIM declared in an unofficial manner that four of its members . . . have been delivered to the north of Mali as a result of a major transaction led by the Malian president," it said.

An unnamed European country paid a ransom of five million Euros, the Algerian daily El Khabar reported last week, and Ennahar, citing its own sources, asserted the same Tuesday.

The women freed alongside Fowler and Guay are a Swiss and a German.

The Swiss woman's husband and a British man remain hostage. al-Qaida said in a statement Sunday it would give Britain 20 days to free a prominent al-Qaida member currently held in a British jail, or it will kill the Briton.