Al Qaeda’s North African arm has demanded 20 of its members be released from detention in Mali and other countries as a condition for releasing six Western hostages, an Algerian newspaper reported on Saturday.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has said it is holding two Canadian diplomats seized in Niger in December, including the UN special representative to the West African country, and four European tourists kidnapped nearby in Mali in January.
Reuters reports Algerian newspaper el Khabar quoted unnamed Algerian security officials as saying al Qaeda had demanded 20 Algerian, Mauritanian and Moroccan members detained in Mali and elsewhere be freed as a condition for releasing the Western hostages.
The newspaper said middlemen had met an al Qaeda leader, Yahia Djouadi, at an unspecified location in Mali in an attempt to check the six hostages were all in good health and were all indeed being held by Djouadi’s militants, after some media reports that they were being held by a different cell.
Djouadi, sometimes written ‘Jawadi’, has been identified by U.S. officials as one of the Algerian leaders of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which was formerly known as the Group for Salafist Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
Since al Qaeda published photographs of the four tourists from Switzerland, Germany and Britain on the Internet in mid-February, little had been heard of the six Western hostages.
Then, last week, UN officials said the captors had freed a local driver who was seized in December at the same time as Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, the special representative to Niger of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and an aide.
A security source in Mali told Reuters this week that the country’s authorities had made contact with the kidnappers via prominent members of communities in the north of the country.
The militants had demanded the release of al Qaeda members from detention but then negotiations had stalled, the source said, giving no further details.
Negotiations for the release of hostages held by Islamic militants in the Sahel tend to be protracted. They often depend on representatives of communities living in the area, including Tuareg nomads who have launched rebellions against the governments of both Mali and Niger in the past two years.
Last year two Austrian tourists were freed in northern Mali eight months after they were captured by al Qaeda during a holiday to Tunisia.
In that case, al Qaeda had initially demanded the release of 10 militants being held in Algeria and Tunisia, setting a series of deadlines and threatening to kill the hostages.
After their release officials said no militants had been set free and both the Malian and Austrian governments said they had paid no ransom.