Al Qaeda releases Frenchman in prisoner swap


Al Qaeda’s North African wing released French hostage Pierre Camatte, Mali’s government said yesterday, in an apparent prisoner swap that has angered neighbours Algeria and Mauritania.

“We confirm the liberation of Pierre Camatte,” Malian presidency spokesperson Seydou Cissouma told state radio, adding that the Frenchman, who was taken hostage in November, was in the hands of Mali authorities.

Camatte’s release follows that of four Islamist prisoners by Mali last week. Al Qaeda had threatened to kill Camatte unless the four were released by February 22.

Algeria and Mauritania, where al Qaeda cells also operate, recalled their ambassadors to protest against the prisoner swap. Algerian media said two of the freed men were Algerian, and the Mauritanian government said one was Mauritanian.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is due to visit Gabon today, said in a statement that he was delighted that Camatte had been freed.

He said he had thanked Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure for his handling of the crisis and pledged French support in the struggle against terrorism.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has also claimed responsibility for the abduction of three Spaniards and an Italian couple.

Shift to Sahara

AQIM emerged in 2007 from the Salafist GSPC movement which battled Algerian security forces during the 1990s.

After years waging a campaign of suicide bombings and ambushes in Algeria, the group shifted a large part of its activities south to the Sahara desert using the politically volatile and sparsely populated area as a safe haven.

Last year AQIM killed a British hostage, and analysts say it is as interested in securing multi-million dollar ransoms as it is in its political goals.

The United States and European nations are trying to improve the capacity of the Saharan states to combat the threat but disputes among regional governments have hampered efforts to mount a coordinated response.

Algeria, which has been fighting Islamist insurgents for years, is fiercely opposed to any deals being struck with AQIM to secure the release of foreign hostages, saying they strengthen the rebels.

Coordination between the Saharan states of Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in fighting AQIM was already ineffective, and security experts said the diplomatic row would make it even worse.