February 23, 2010 / 5:58 AM / in 9 years

Mauritania recalls ambassador to Mali in al Qaeda row

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Mauritania has temporarily recalled its ambassador to its northwest African neighbour Mali in a row about Mali releasing a Mauritanian Islamist from prison, Nouakchott said on Monday.

Mauritania says the former prisoner is a member of al Qaeda’s north African wing, and should have been handed over to Mauritanian authorities. It has called its ambassador to Bamako, Sidi Mohamed Ould Hanenna, back to Nouakchott for consultation.

“The recall of the ambassador is a means of protesting against an ... unjustified act,” the Mauritanian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “The freeing of the Mauritanian member of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was done in violation of judicial agreements between Mauritania and Mali.”

Malian authorities released four Islamist prisoners in an apparent deal with AQIM to save a French hostage, according to a newspaper report in Mali on Friday.

AQIM had said France and Mali would be “responsible” for the life of Pierre Camatte, who was kidnapped in Mali in November, unless Bamako released the Islamist prisoners by February 20.

AQIM has also claimed responsibility for the abduction of three Spaniards and an Italian couple. There was no immediate word on the fate of Camatte or other hostages.

The group emerged in 2007 from the Salafist GSPC movement which battled Algerian security forces during the 1990s.

Last year it killed a British hostage and analysts say the group is interested as much in securing multi-million dollar ransom payments as it is in political goals.

AQIM has waged a campaign of suicide bombings and ambushes in Algeria but in the past few years has shifted a large part of its activities south to the Sahara desert.

Some Western governments believe al Qaeda-linked fighters and drug smugglers, using the politically volatile and sparsely populated Sahara as a safe haven, are forging ties which could make both groups a more potent threat.

The United States and European nations are seeking to improve the capacity of the Sahara-region states to combat the threat but disputes among regional governments have hampered efforts to mount a coordinated response.

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