Washington Post/AP, BBC, FOX News/EFE, AFP (Madrid, Spain, July 29, 2012) — Spain says it is repatriating all of its aid workers and three other foreign nationals from refugee camps in Tindouf in western Algeria out of fears for their security.
Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said Saturday that the decision had been taken after reviewing “well-founded evidence of a serious increase in insecurity in the region.”
According to the BBC and FOX News/EFE, the Spanish Foreign Minister said nearby northern Mali had been “converted into a platform for terrorism” and there were ”well-founded indications” of possible attacks by northern Mali terrorist groups.
Garcia-Margallo said 12 Spaniards, two French nationals and an Italian would arrive in the Spanish capital, Madrid, by military aircraft early Sunday. A Spanish and a Peruvian aid worker have already returned to Spain. Garcia-Margallo said the Spanish plane left Torrejon air base in Madrid on Saturday to collect the workers.
Ten days ago Islamist rebels in Mali belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO by its French acronym, released three aid workers — Spaniards Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez del Rincon and Italian Rossella Urru — kidnapped from a refugee camp in Tindouf in October. AFP reported that the abductions, which occurred in the Polisario Front’s Rabouni headquarters camp, were assisted by camp insiders.
In exchange for freeing the aid workers, Associated Press reported that MUJAO received $14.8 million in ransom, as well as the release of two MUJAO members. Mali news media and the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that one of the exchanged terrorists, Memine Ould Oufkir, was from the Polisario-run Tindouf camps and was held by Mauritania for his role as an accomplice in the kidnapping.
In announcing the three hostages’ release, the MUJAO spokesperson, Adnan Abu Elwalid Sahraoui, threatened to stage more kidnappings in the Sahel region. “We will take them as soon as they enter the territories of Mauritania, Mali, Algeria or Niger,” he said.
Millions of dollars have reportedly been paid for other hostages held by Islamic groups in the Sahara Desert. At least six Western hostages have been killed in the region between 2009 and 2011. All were held by al-Qaida’s African franchise, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM.
MUJAO is a breakaway from AQIM. Ansar Dine, another al-Qaida-linked rebel group led by a former Mali diplomat and one-time leader of a rebellion of the Tuareg people, is believed to have links to AQIM, which has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings, as well as the kidnappings of at least 50 foreigners.
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Last week, Reuters reported US AFRICOM commander General Carter Ham’s assessment that Al Qaeda’s AQIM affiliate was the dominant Islamist force among those controlling northern Mali, as well as al-Qaeda’s richest faction.
A recent intelligence briefing by the Soufan Group/Atlantic Council reported that Al-Qaeda’s base in northern Mali is “attracting new followers to the Sahel jihadists from as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan.” It warned of “the spread of violent extremism by Islamist groups along the continent-wide Sahel belt and the increasing links between the various extremist groups… militants and other illicit networks.” The briefing added that “AQIM also increased its linkages with other rebel forces in the Sahel, including the Polisario Front.”
Last week, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote that instability in Mali “allowed a separatist, extremist movement to take hold,” and warned of a “toxic alliance that has developed between the Polisario and al-Qaeda of Islamic Maghreb.” She said, “the brew of drug trafficking, human trafficking, kidnapping and terrorism, if allowed to bubble over, has the potential to undermine government throughout the Maghreb and beyond.” Rubin quoted Morocco’s Minister Delegate for Foreign Affairs, Youssef Amrani — in Washington for meetings with Congress and Administration leaders – saying the partnership between AQIM and Polisario members “is a major security threat, not only for Africa and the Maghreb, but for Europe.”