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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Fowler, Guay Release in AQIM Prisoner Swap

Four imprisoned Islamist fighters were released in exchange for two Canadian diplomats and two European women, the al-Qaeda-linked terror group that held the hostages said in a statement Sunday.

The Algerian-based group also threatened to kill a British tourist it continues to hold if Britain does not release an Islamic extremist who western authorities have long suspected was Osama bin Laden's top European envoy.

It did not specify a demand for the Swiss man held with the Briton.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada had not been a party to any deal with the terror group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as he announced Wednesday that Robert Fowler and Louis Guay had been released.

But he left open the possibility that other governments involved in the region-wide efforts to free the hostages had made concessions.

  • A prisoner exchange had been the terrorist group's primary demand for the release of the Canadians, Canwest News Service revealed several weeks after the pair's kidnapping on Dec. 14 in Niger, citing sources that could not be named.
The AQIM statement, translated by Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group, does not identify the four militants it says were released, or who had been holding them.
  • But the terror group says it wants Abu Qatada, who is listed by the United Nations al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctions committee as a terrorism suspect, subject to a worldwide travel ban and assets freeze, released from jail in the British Midlands, in exchange for the life of the Briton.
"With this statement, we declare to the public opinion that with praise to Allah alone, four prisoners among our mujahedeen were released in exchange for the release of the hostages of the organization, namely:
  • the Canadians (Robert Fowler and Louis Guay),
  • the German (Marianne Petzold),
  • and the Swiss (Gabriella Burco Greiner),"

said AQIM, which has become increasingly active in North Africa after evolving recently from Algerian militants of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat.

"On the other hand, we declare that the organization still holds the British tourist (Edwen Dyer) and the Swiss tourist (Werner Greiner) until the achievement of our legitimate demands."

  • The group gave Britain 20 days to announce it will release the "oppressed" Qatada, who is fighting a British government deportation order, but was sentenced in Jordan to life imprisonment in absentia in 2000 for his alleged involvement in a plot to bomb tourists attending millennium celebrations there.

"At the end of the period, the mujahedeen will execute the British hostage if they do not find a response to that demand after giving notice," the statement said.

The kidnappers of BBC journalist Alan Johnston in Gaza in 2007 had also demanded Qatada's release, among dozens of other captives.

The statement respectfully referred to him as "Sheik," which security experts said denoted leadership status.

He entered Britain allegedly under a false United Arab Emirates passport in 1993, but holds Jordanian citizenship because he was born in Bethlehem in 1960, when Jordan ran the West Bank.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who named Fowler as his special envoy to Niger last July, gave special thanks to Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso for their unspecified help in ensuring the release of the Canadians and European women.

But insiders say any release of AQIM operatives would also have involved talks with Algeria, which is a prime target of AQIM violence.

"They would (normally) want them turned over to Algeria," a former U.S. ambassador to the region told Canwest News Service, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the deal making.

Prominent Arabic-language newspapers cite Algerian security sources as having knowledge of what it took to win freedom for the four, with one saying an unnamed European country paid five million euros -- or about $8 million -- in ransom.

By Steven Edwards, Canwest News ServiceApril 27, 2009

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