Sarkozy jabs at Spain over Qaeda ransoms
In an apparent jab at Spain, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy said Wednesday that governments must do more to fight North African terrorism than simply paying ransoms to Al-Qaeda kidnappers.
Two Spanish hostages were freed this week by Al-Qaeda's offshoot in the Sahara, reportedly after a ransom of around eight million euros (10 million dollars) was paid and a senior militant was released from jail in Mali.
The safe return of the Spanish aid workers, nine months after their kidnap, stood in stark contrast to the fate of a French hostage, who was confirmed dead last month after a French military operation failed to find him.
"It can't be our only strategy to pay ransoms and to agree to free prisoners in exchange for unlucky innocent victims. That can't be a strategy," Sarkozy said, going on to praise the French raid as a major blow against Al-Qaeda.
Sarkozy did not explicitly single out Spain, but his speech came amid new controversy over the release of the Spaniards, 35-year-old Albert Vilalta and 50-year-old Roque Pascual, who returned home on Tuesday.
Madrid has not confirmed paying a ransom, but Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said some of its demands had been met and Malian mediators told AFP that a ransom of around eight million euros was paid.
Spain's respected El Mundo newspaper said the Madrid government paid out 6.8 million euros to secure the release of the two men and a third aid worker, Alicia Gamez, who was kidnapped at the same time and freed in March.
In addition, Mauritania extradited to Mali a mercenary warlord convicted for their kidnap, Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma, known as "Omar the Sahrawi", who was promptly released.
France has been involved in similar prisoner swaps in the Sahel region, but on July 22 chose a different tactic, sending commandos to raid an AQIM camp in the Malian desert to seek 78-year-old hostage Michel Germaneau.
The hostage was not found, but seven Al-Qaeda militants were killed in a battle with the Franco-Mauritanian force. Three days later AQIM announced that it had executed Germaneau in revenge for the attack.
France maintains that the aid worker, who was known to be sick, was probably dead even before the operation -- and firmly denies AQIM claims it had broken off negotiations for his release, insisting no contact was made.
The willingness of some European governments to countenance paying ransoms to kidnappers has complicated the security task of North and West African governments, who are sometimes pressured into releasing captured militants.
Algerian President Abelaziz Bouteflika last year urged the United Nations General Assembly to impose "a total ban on the payment of ransoms to hostage-takers, who have reached worrying numbers in recent years."
© 2010 AFP