Mauritania tries 'Al-Qaeda linked kidnappers'

20th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Four members of an Al-Qaeda linked group went on trial here Tuesday for kidnapping three Spanish aid workers in Mauritania last year.

The trial got underway in the capital Nouakchott while two of the Spaniards are still being held by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the northern Malian desert.

Among the four defendants in the dock was a 52-year-old Malian national, Omar Sid-Ahmed Ould Hamma, believed by investigators to be the key figure behind the kidnappings carried out in November last year.

Two other suspects were in court, but not in the dock.

However, five of the 11 accused have evaded arrest and are being tried in absentia.

The three Spaniards, two men and a woman working for a Barcelona-based NGO, were travelling in the last vehicle of a humanitarian convoy when they were abducted between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou on November 29.

Authorities claim Hamma, nicknamed Omar the Sahrawi, carried out the kidnapping himself along with two other Malians who are being tried in absentia.

"You are accused of endangering the life and safety of people, their kidnap and their sequestration," while "using Mauritanian territory to commit terrorist acts against citizens of a foreign country," court president Kheyi Ould Mohamed announced.

"I don't recognise these charges," Hamma replied. When told that he had acknowledged them to the prosecutor and police, he said, "If I did say that, I must have been lying."

The other defendants, who included a Mauritanian shepherd of 75 who broke down in tears and said he had been tortured, also pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors say the kidnap gang were paid mercenaries of one of AQIM's leaders, an Algerian named Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Investigators say the Spaniards were taken through Moroccan-controlled territory in the Western Sahara and into a desert region in the extreme north of Mali.

Female hostage Alicia Gamez, 39, was released on March 10 after three months in captivity, but her two countrymen, Albert Vilalta, 35, and Roque Pascual, 50, are still in the hands of the Islamist group.

An Italian couple kidnapped in December is also still being held.

The kidnappers have demanded payment of several million dollars in ransom and the release of Islamist prisoners held in Mauritania, which along with neighbouring desert states Mali and Niger has witnessed a rise in terrorism-related kidnappings of westerners.

© 2010 AFP

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