Extradition of Al-Qaeda mercenary to aid hostages: observers

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The extradition of a Malian convicted in Mauritania of kidnapping three Spaniards for Al-Qaeda is an important gesture which may aid in the liberation of the two remaining hostages, observers say.

Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma, 52, arrived in Bamako on Monday night and while it is not clear what will become of the 12-year prison sentence handed down in Mauritania, his return is likely to be favourably viewed by Al-Qaeda militants.

"For AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the fact that Omar has been transferred to Mali is a victory. Mauritania has made a gesture. It is very important," said a source close to the case of the Spanish hostages.

Relations between the neighbouring countries have been strained with Mauritania accusing Mali of being soft on AQIM after it released four prisoners in exchange for French hostage Pierre Camatte in February.

While not an AQIM militant himself, Hamma - nicknamed "Omar the Sahrawi" - has strong ties to the north African branch of Osama bin Laden's terror network.

He was paid for kidnapping and handing over 39-year-old Alicia Gamez, Roque Pascual, 50, and Albert Vilaltam, 35 in November last year.

The only female among the group Gamez was released in March, but the other two remain in the northern Mali desert.

Within a week of his conviction in Nouakchott, Hamma was put on a plane to Bamako, uncuffed, and handed over to Malian security sources who took him to an unknown destination.

"Where will he serve his sentence? Will he go to jail? Will he work in a public utility? Will he be put under house arrest? We don't have an answer to all of these questions right now," admits a source in the Malian justice ministry.

Married to a woman from the western Sahara, Hamma is above all a businessmen and an expert of the countries across the Sahel which he has crossed the length and breadth of, forging links with various tribes in the region.

For AQIM, he is a valuable asset.

"The most important thing for AQIM is his role as an experienced guide in this great desert, the chain of relationships he has built in these different countries," said Isselmou Ould Salihi, editor of Mauritanian newspaper Tahalil Hebdo and specialist in Islamist organisations.

This expertise presents "incalculable expertise which could benefit everybody," he said, adding the extradition "is perhaps significant in the process of freeing the Spanish hostages."

The remaining hostages are in the hands of a cell led by Algeria's Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed "Belawar" who paid Hamma to kidnap them.

Abou Al Maali, a Mauritanian expert in Islamist Issues for the newspaper Nouakchott Info says: "It is undeniable that this extradition impacts directly on the liberation of the Spaniards."

For Belmokhtar it "shows mercenaries and traffickers working with him that he will assure their protection" while strengthening his support among local tribes.

While Belmokhtar is considered more a businessman than a religious fanatic, sources in Mali recently confirmed he is "under pressure" from a radical branch of AQIM led by another Algerian, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid.

Zeid has overseen the deaths of two western hostages, Briton Edwin Dyer, and Frenchman Michel Germaneau. The latter was killed after a Franco-Mauritanian raid in an attempt to find him, in which seven of Zeid's men were killed.

He is believed to be demanding the execution of the Spaniards in retaliation for the July 22 military operation.

© 2010 AFP

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