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Friday, April 24, 2009

Robert Folwer and Guay Released


With Robert Fowler and Louis Guay set to return to Canada, questions persisted Thursday about whether a European country paid millions in ransom to secure their release.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper denied Canada paid any ransom, and the United Nations said Thursday it was "not aware" of any ransom payments by other countries, an Algerian newspaper — citing unnamed sources — reported a European country paid five million euros for the release of the two Canadian diplomats and two Europeans in a "complex deal."

In a second report, Algerian security sources, speaking anonymously, also confirmed a ransom had been paid for the group's release, according to a translation of the Arabic-language Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper by the Washington-Based Middle East Media Research Institute — Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor Project.
  • The sources did not specify the amount of the ransom or who paid it, but added negotiations had been conducted through members of the Tuareg nomads, whose lands lie over several countries of the region.

Fowler, Canada's longest serving UN ambassador and a veteran of international affairs, went missing along with his assistant, Guay, last December in the Saharan nation of Niger while on a UN mission.

New pictures from neighbouring Mali on Thursday showed a bearded Fowler and Guay, both wearing suits, appearing robust and smiling as they shook the hands of diplomats.

According to officials, the Canadians will first fly to Germany for a reunion with their wives. They were also expected to spend a couple of days in a military hospital before returning to Canada

The claim a ransom was paid, however, is attributed to unnamed sources of Algerian-based El Khabar daily newspaper.

"It was . . . a highly complex deal, which included the provision of ransom from a European country of five million euros, according to informed sources," the newspaper said.

Significantly, the publication accurately reported last week, again citing unnamed sources, that a release was imminent.

It is also based in the same country as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the North African branch of the international terrorist network that claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.

Spanish-language newswire EFE, quoting from the El Khabar report, also said last Tuesday that the two diplomats had been transferred in March from AQIM to the unnamed Mali-based armed group in an operation involving Algerian authorities.

The armed group, which operates in the northern Akazit region of Mali, was reportedly holding the two diplomats until their release.

The report claimed that Algeria had played a key role in the sensitive negotiations for their release.

El Khabar reported the agreement to release Fowler and Guay was reached without any strings as a result of the intense military and political pressure exerted on AQIM following the kidnapping, according to the report.

AQIM had demanded imprisoned members of their group be released in exchange for the hostages.

  • The group has in recent years gained a reputation of kidnapping for ransom while conducting frequent violent operations against mainly Algerian targets.
  • The group conducted lengthy negotiations last year after kidnapping two Austrian tourists in Tunisia in February, and transferring them — as in the case of the Canadian diplomats — to Mali.
  • After demanding $8 million for the release of the Austrians, $2 million was paid in October, a source close to those negotiations told Canwest News Service on Thursday.

The UN said it does not pay ransoms as a matter of policy, adding it does not believe Canada or any other group involved in the negotiations over the Canadian diplomats offered any.

"We are not aware of any ransom being paid or any concessions being made," Ban's spokesman Farhan Haq said Thursday.

Fowler's family and close friends learned that he and Guay had been transferred to Mali within a month of their capture, which gave them hope they would not be killed.

"Very early on, it became clear they were still alive," Fowler's friend Gerald Ohlsen, a retired diplomat, told Canwest News Service.

"It became clear they had value to whoever held them and that was in a sense reassuring because it reduced the likelihood they would be arbitrarily killed."

Ohlsen said it was absolutely necessary to negotiate in secrecy to secure the release of Guay and Fowler, his friend of 40 years.

But Ohlsen said legitimate questions remained unanswered, now that Fowler and Guay were safe.

  • "Who are these guys who held them and what did they want? Where do they fit in this much broader issue that goes all the way from Afghanistan to Somalia and West Africa?" he asked.
  • "Are they really part of a network or are they simply guys using the name and pursuing their own goals . . . So often in these conflicts — all of them — the primary driver isn't political, it's self-enrichment."

Allan Rock, a former Canadian UN ambassador, said Fowler and Guay would be subjected to heavy debriefing.

"We've had an involuntary glimpse into the inner workings of al-Qaida in North Africa and that whole region. There's no doubt that additional information about what happened and who was involved . . . that would be useful as we try to better understand the dynamics of the region."

Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, and a friend of Fowler's, questioned whether the Niger government was complicit in his disappearance.

"Why did he disappear close to the capital of Niger, travelling on a road that was relatively secure in broad daylight?" asked Hampson.

"It was an open secret that the government of Niger didn't want the UN there and they didn't want Bob Fowler there because they weren't interested in talking to the Tuareg rebels."

Rock, now the president of the University of Ottawa where Fowler is a senior fellow, said Fowler's deep knowledge of Africa's complexities likely helped him endure his long captivity.

"I'm sure he figured out very quickly why he was taken and by whom. I'm sure that knowledge must have been reassuring for him," said Rock. "If anyone could understand what was happening to him and make it through, it would be Fowler."

Ohlsen and Rock described Fowler as a dedicated Africa hand, whose deep empathy for human suffering and high-level policy understanding fuelled a commitment to ending conflict.

"His level of commitment to the continent will not falter. He may falter. This is a massively traumatic experience. They both need to be given an enormous amount of time and space to heal," said Ohlsen.

"These things come back to haunt you," added Ohlsen, who has held senior posts in Nigeria and Rwanda. "It's just absolutely impossible to say what will happen with either of them as a result of this.

"They're not going to come out of this easily."

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