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Mauritania rules out freeing Al-Qaeda prisoners for hostages

Mauritania’s defence minister ruled out freeing Al-Qaeda prisoners in return for Western hostages held in his country in an interview with AFP Wednesday.

“We won’t free any terrorist. It is a matter of principle. This would jeopardise the security of our country and our people,” Hamadi Ould Baba Ould Hamadi said.

“It is absolutely out of the question to release anyone or mediate in their release,” he said, adding that “when you have the release of prisoners or ransom payments, you have terrorism.”

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — which operates in the desert areas of Mali, Mauritania and Algeria — is holding two Spanish hostages, Albert Vilalta, 35 and Roque Pascual, 50, who were kidnapped in November 2009.

They also hold Frenchman Michel Germaneau, 78, who was kidnapped in northern Niger in April.

The kidnappers seek ransoms worth millions of dollars as well as the release of Islamist prisoners — specifically in Mauritania — in return for the release of the hostages.

“Paying ransoms is financing terrorism,” said the defence minister, “and freeing prisoners gives assurance that they can trade with the first Toubab (white foreigner) that can be taken. It imperils the lives of those who are still there.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Angel Moratinos paid a surprise visit to Nouakchott on Sunday and was received by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

No official reason was given for the visit but observers expect it was about the fate of the two Spanish hostages.

About 70 radical Islamists are held in Nouakchott central prison, including three Mauritanians condemned to death in May for killing four French tourists in 2007.