Qaeda in talks on freeing European hostages -paper

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Negotiations have started for the release of a Briton and a Swiss national being held hostage by al Qaeda militants in the Sahara desert, an Algerian newspaper quoted a security source as saying.
Al Qaeda’s North African wing has threatened to kill the British hostage on May 15 unless Britain releases Sheikh Abu Qatada, a Jordanian Islamist it is holding in prison, Reuters says.
Algeria’s El-Khabar newspaper yesterday said the talks were being conducted with the hostage-takers’ leader using mediators from local tribes and Islamists based in Europe. It cited an unidentified security source for the story.
No official confirmation was immediately available that any negotiations were under way. Diplomats and security sources say the hostages are probably being held in Mali.
The newspaper also said a joint operation by states in the region to flush out the militants had been suspended at the request of an unnamed European country to avoid jeopardising the talks.
“The two hostages will be released within weeks, at a date no later than July, if the negotiations are carried out in the desired way,” the newspaper quoted the source as saying.
Mali last week sent three combat units to track down suspected al Qaeda militants in the north of the country, part of a vast desert tract that in the past few years has become a haven for Islamist insurgents.
Other states around the Sahara desert, including Algeria, Mauritania and Niger, are also preparing a joint offensive against the militants, media reports and military sources in the region said last week.
Regional governments are under pressure from Europe and the United States to stamp out the al Qaeda presence in the Sahara desert.
Al Qaeda’s North African wing, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has been waging a campaign of bombings and shootings, primarily along Algeria’s Mediterranean coast.
A security crackdown there has forced elements of the group to switch their focus to the Sahara, with its sparse population, porous borders and weak government control.
The group’s highest profile activity in the Sahara has been kidnapping. AQIM said it kidnapped 32 foreign tourists in 2003 as well as two Austrian tourists in Tunisia in early 2008.
It also 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.
Britain has not released the name of the remaining British hostage. A Foreign Office spokesman said Britain was “continuing to work with the Malian government to help secure a safe, swift and unconditional release”.