Kidnap-prone Mali boosts security to save tourism

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Mali on Wednesday approved a plan to step up security in Timbuktu and other sites in a bid to save a tourism industry which kidnappings and attacks by the regional Al Qaeda branch have all but killed.

Regional security sources said the kidnapping of two Frenchmen on November 24 was the work of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), however it is not clear who masterminded the seizure of three Europeans, and the murder of a German tourist a day later.

A national defence committee convened by President Amadou Toumani Toure on Wednesday vowed to boost security at tourist spots such as the world heritage site Timbuktu where the latest group were abducted.

"The security plan that Mali has been working on in recent months has just been validated by a national defence committee chaired by the president," Tourism Minister Mohamed el Moctar told journalists.

A defence ministry statement said the meeting examined the reinforcement of armed forces and security, the role of tourism operators and the need for collaboration between paramilitary forces and armed forces.

However most embassies have long since issued stern warnings to citizens to avoid travel to the Mali's perilous north.

The vast desert area has long been known as a site for AQIM bases, where foreigners kidnapped in the region are held for ransom by the well-oiled Al-Qaeda army which is also heavily involved in drug trafficking.

AQIM has not claimed responsability for the kidnappings of Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic in the northern town of Hombori, but regional security sources say they have confirmed it to be true.

"According to cross-referenced information, AQIM is responsible for the kidnapping of two French citizens in Hombori in November," said a Malian security source.

The two Frenchmen described themselves as a geologist and an engineer but several acquaintances said Verdon had previously posed as a journalist and claimed to be close a famed French mercenary, while Lazarevic had military ties.

Their seizure brings to seven the number of French citizens held by AQIM in the vast desert area, who have held another four Frenchmen since 2010.

French investigators and police arrived in Bamako this week and have already begun interrogating suspects to shed light on the kidnappings, police sources said.

A day after the Frenchmen were kidnapped, an armed gang snatched a Swede, a Dutchman and a man with dual British-South African nationality from a restaurant on Timbuktu's central square and killed a German with them who tried to resist.

A source close to the case said those responsible for the Timbuktu kidnapping were probably sub-contractors or a new armed group.

The kidnapping of tourists in the region, which began in 2003 when 32 German and Swiss travellers were seized in southern Algeria, has become big business for local thugs looking to sell a foreigner to AQIM for a quick windfall.

AQIM started in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists who sought the overthrow of the Algerian government to be replaced with Islamic rule. The organisation linked to Al-Qaeda in 2006.

These militant Islamists have spun a tight network across tribes, clans, family and business lines that stretch across the Sahel.

The fresh kidnappings add to Mali's problems as the west African nation is grappling with the return of thousands of heavily armed fighters who served fallen Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

© 2011 AFP

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