French hostage freed after abduction in Mali by North Africa’s al-Qaida offshoot

By Angela Doland, AP
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

French hostage freed in Mali

PARIS — A French hostage held captive in Mali for three months by Al-Qaida’s North Africa offshoot was freed Tuesday, following a contested court decision ordering a jail release for four suspected members of the militant group that abducted him.

Pierre Camatte, who ran a small organization fighting malaria in Mali, was en route to Bamako, the country’s capital, from where he planned to head to France, the French Foreign Ministry said. Officials in Paris did not provide details about his release.

There had been suggestions Camatte’s liberation was imminent. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the militant group that captured Camatte in late November, had posted a message on militant Web sites agreeing to hand him over if Mali released four of its members from jail.

Two days before the group’s deadline, a court in Bamako ordered the four suspects released — a decision that led Algeria to recall its ambassador to Mali on Tuesday, concerned the ruling compromised security in the region and sent a troubling message to militant groups.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb operates mainly in Algeria but is suspected of crossing the country’s porous desert borders to spread violence in the rest of northwestern Africa.

Camatte had lived in Menaka, eastern Mali since 2008. Along with his anti-malaria work he also managed a hotel in Menaka, where he was abducted Nov. 26 by men masquerading as hotel guests, the African nation’s government has said.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s called his counterpart in Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure, to thank him for his handling of the crisis, the French presidency said in a statement.

Asked earlier Tuesday if France expected Camatte to be freed soon, French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet said the court order to release the four suspected militants was “an initial signal, after all the requests France has made.”

“I hope, I hope, that it’s really only a question of hours and days,” he told LCI television.

Last week, a Mali court sentenced the suspected militants — two Algerians, a Mauritanian and a man from Burkina Faso — to nine months behind bars, which they had already served. The ruling translated to a decision for their release.

The four had been apprehended by Mali’s army in April 2009, in possession of weapons including machine guns and a rocket launcher, according to the prosecution. They were convicted on weapons charges — not on terror-related charges, which would have brought a minimum five-year sentence.

Algeria’s Foreign Ministry said it “forcefully condemned and denounced the decision,” which it described as “unfriendly.” A ministry statement said Algeria was recalling its ambassador for consultations.

Algeria, which had asked for the extradition of its citizens, said the Malian decision treated the nations’ bilateral judicial treaty with “disdain.” It also said the decision to release the men after such a short time behind bars was “a dangerous development for security and stability” in the region.

Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa rose from the remains of a Salafist militant group in Algeria in the 1990s, when a near-civil war between government forces and Islamists killed up to 200,000 people. The group stepped up attacks after joining Osama bin Laden’s network in 2006.

Associated Press Writers Almahady Cisse in Bamako, Mali and Aomar Ouali in Algiers in Algiers, Algeria contributed to this report.

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