Al-Qaeda link feared in Mauritania kidnap

1st December 2009, Comments 0 comments

The Spanish aid workers were feared kidnapped by the hardline Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, which has struck before on the western side of the Sahara.

Nouakchott – The kidnapping of three Spanish humanitarian volunteers by suspected Islamic militants is a first for Mauritania which has seen a series of terror attacks claimed by Al-Qaeda in recent years.

The three Spanish nationals, members of Spanish group Barcelona Accio Solidaria, were travelling in a convoy on Sunday delivering humanitarian aid.

They have been named as Albert Vilalta, 35, Alicia Gamez, 35, and Roque Pascual, 50.

Their car "was attacked by armed men who shot in the air to make them stop", one of the other volunteers in the convoy, Josep Carbonell, told AFP Monday.

"When we turned back, their car was empty."

The aid workers were feared kidnapped by the hardline Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has struck before in the vast mainly desert nation on the western side of the Sahara.

Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos called the kidnapping "a terrorist act". Interior Minister Alfredo Pereza Rubalcaba, speaking in Brussels, said that AQIM was likely behind the kidnapping.

"Even though we can say absolutely nothing for sure at the moment, everything would seem to indicate that it was a kidnapping. If that's the case, as I fear it is, everything would indicate that it is an AQIM kidnapping," he said in remarks carried on Spanish radio.

The incident came days after a French citizen was kidnapped in the northeast of neighbouring Mali. According to a Malian security source, he is being held by Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

Many observers here also say there is a link between the cases.

According to the editor of Mauritania's independent weekly Tahalil Hebdo, Isselmou Ould Salihi, the militants are "targetting Europe, and especially France and Spain, who are involved in the fight against AQIM in the region."

"They want to get leverage to negotiate the liberation of their fighters held in Nouakchott and to get ransoms."

The attack took place near the town of Chelkhett Legtouta, 170 kilometres (106 miles) north of Nouakchott, according to the Mauritanian security source.

Mauritanian army reinforcements had been sent to the area.

The army has "mobilised over a vast stretch of desert and sealed off all the known crossing points," a military source said Monday. "We're watching out, we are ready."

"The noose is tightening, they (the kidnappers) cannot get away," the source told AFP.

Moratinos said the Spain is helping the search with "planes and helicopters" already in the zone working for the European Frontex initiative to curb illegal immigration from West Africa.

The Spanish FM added that Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure has spoken with Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and has given the Mauritanian forces the green light to pursue the kidnappers across the border if they tree to flee to neighbouring Mali.

Mauritania, a vast country of three million people, has been hit by a number of attacks claimed by the north African branch of Al-Qaeda. AQIM was blamed for the murder of four Frenchmen at Aleg in December 2007 and the killing of a US resident in Nouakchott in June 2009.

Several Westerners have been kidnapped in recent months in Africa's Sahel region and taken to northern Mali before being freed.

In June, however, the Al-Qaeda militants announced on a website that they had beheaded Briton Edwin Dyer because London would not meet their demands. It was believed to be the first time the group had killed a Westerner taken as a hostage.

AFP / Expatica

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