Algerian ex-militant urges al Qaeda to surrender

A former leader of Algeria’s Islamist insurgency has urged members of al Qaeda’s North African wing to lay down their arms, in what security experts said was part of a government strategy to split the insurgents.
Reuters notes Algeria’s leaders are keen to draw a line under an insurgency that has troubled the North African oil and gas producer for nearly two decades.
A security crackdown has led to a sharp drop in attacks and the authorities are now trying to drive home their advantage by persuading waverers inside al Qaeda’s ranks to accept a long-standing amnesty offer, observers say.
An appeal to the insurgents from Amari Saifi, previously a senior figure in the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat — the precursor to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — was published on Saturday in several newspapers.
“Armed action brought pain and suffering to our people … the truth is that such actions have nothing to do with Islam,” Saifi, also known as Abderazak El Para, said in the appeal.
The former militant, who masterminded the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists, has never previously made a public appeal to the insurgents to surrender.
In the past month similar statements have been issued by Hassan Hattab, who founded the Group for Salafist Preaching and Combat, and by former AQIM propaganda chief Ben Messaoud Abdelkader.
A senior Muslim cleric who has offered to mediate between the government and insurgents said the appeals were aimed at a category of al Qaeda militants in the middle ground between the hardliners and former fighters who turned themselves in.
Security analysts say this middle group has grown since several leading al Qaeda figures were killed or captured, damaging the group’s ability to mount major attacks.
“Obviously the calls made by former militants leader focus on the category of the waverers inside al Qaeda. It is a big category. But the calls will have no effect on the hardliners, ” Sheikh Zeraoui Hamadache told Reuters.
The location of the three former militants who urged the insurgents to give themselves up is not known and it was not clear under what circumstances they issued the appeals.
Human rights groups have accused Algeria of using torture against militants, an allegation it denies. Some militants who turned themselves in have received financial and other help from the government under the terms of the amnesty.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika offered the amnesty in 2006 to rebels who agree to give up their fight, provided they were not involved in collective massacres, rapes or bombings in public places.
A few hundred militants have left their mountain hideouts and rejoined society since the amnesty was announced. But a hardcore of al Qaeda fighters has spurned the offer and continues to mount sporadic bombings and ambushes.
Salima Tlemcani, an Algerian newspaper journalist who specialises in security issues, said the surrender calls would have no effect on the hardliners surrounding AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droudkel.
“They (the former militant leaders) have neither the weight nor the influence to convince AQIM’s current leaders to lay down arms, all they want is to find a way to escape justice,” she told Reuters.
The Algerian government has not disclosed whether any militants have surrendered in response to the appeals issued by the former militant leaders.
Meanwhile, in Mali
Meanwhile, Mali launched an operation aimed at flushing out suspected al Qaeda militants in the Sahara on Saturday and states in the region prepared for a joint crackdown, military sources said.
Reuters says AQIM is threatening to kill a British hostage, believed to be held in the region, on May 15 unless Britain releases a Jordanian Islamist it is holding in prison.
Mali’s army sent three combat units from the northern town of Kidal to pursue a convoy of armed men spotted in the region close to its borders with Algeria and Niger, said the source, who requested anonymity.
“We are awaiting what comes out of it. We do not know whether they are Salafists or another armed group … but we think they are Salafists,” said the source.
The AQIM title was adopted when rebels with Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) affiliated themselves to the al Qaeda network.
Mali and others in the region such as Algeria, Niger and Mauritania are trying to deflect pressure from Europe and the United States to tackle Islamist militant violence there.
It was not immediately clear whether the Malian operation heralded a wider offensive.
However, a senior military source in Niger confirmed there were preparations for a joint effort.
“This is a about attacking head-on a joint problem, namely the presence of terrorists linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in this vast area,” said the source.
The source, who requested anonymity, did not specify when any operation could be carried out but said Niger’s army chief, General Moumouni Boureima, had recently travelled to Algeria to discuss planning with officials there.
“Algeria has supplied military aid to Niger and we would like it to do the same for us.”
The source said Mauritania could also take part in any joint crackdown.
AQIM has been waging a campaign of bombings and shootings, primarily along Algeria’s Mediterranean coast.
A security crackdown has reduced its ability to mount attacks there, forcing it to switch its focus to the Sahara, with its vast spaces and weak government control.
It has claimed responsibility for kidnapping two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists in the past five months. The two diplomats and two of the tourists were released in Mali last month. The remaining hostages are the Briton and a Swiss.
Security experts say the British hostage is most likely being held in the thinly populated area in the Sahara along Algeria’s borders with Mali.

Pic: A video-grab of al Qaeda insurgents holding Austrian tourists hostage.