By Jemal Oumar
Algeria confirmed last week that that seven of its diplomats were taken hostage following an Islamist takeover of their consulate in Mali.
“The Algerian government is fully mobilised to ensure their release,” APS quoted Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci as saying Thursday (April 5th). The minister added that the consul was among those kidnapped by an unknown group and that a crisis cell was set up to track developments.
The kidnappings in Gao, capital of the self-proclaimed state of Azawad, are raising fears of an Islamist takeover following the sweeping Touareg advance across Mali’s north in the wake of a coup d’état.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has blamed al-Qaeda splinter group Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO) for the attack.
Jihadists with explosive belts surrounded the Algerian consulate on Thursday and threatened to detonate them if MNLA security guards at the site refused to leave, MNLA spokesman Hama Ag Sid Ahmed told Tout sur l’Algerie.
In a statement to Magharebia, Gao resident Oudoumo Ag al-Wali also blamed MUJAO for the attack. “They kidnapped the consulate staff members without killing anyone and then escaped outside town. Meanwhile, armed units from National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad MNLA, who are now controlling the town almost fully, went out to chase them,” he said.
“This incident has caused much disapproval among Gao residents, prompting MNLA leaders to hold a general meeting for the residents to reassure them,” Ag al-Wali added. “MNLA leaders confirmed that security couldn’t be established as of the first day, but that they would do their best to fully establish security.”
The more secular MNLA led the push for an independent state, fighting alongside Islamist rebels from Ansar al-Din.
A statement issued by MNLA media official Bakai Ag Hamad Ahmed on Thursday (April 5th) said that the group strongly condemned the attack and denounced any act that harmed foreign diplomats or foreigners in Azawad.
“We consider this incident to be part of a campaign aimed at discrediting MNLA, which is trying to establish security and restore normal life to liberated cities,” the statement added.
The MNLA declared an independent state last Friday, following a unilateral ceasefire declaration late on Wednesday. The Touareg secessionists have expressed their willingness to engage in dialogue based on the demand for self-determination, strongly denied any ties to terrorist organisations and vowed to cleanse Azawad from such armed groups.
In a related development, chiefs of staff of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a meeting Friday to discuss the group’s possible military intervention in Mali, to restore constitutional legitimacy and preserve Mali’s territorial integrity.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said Thursday that military force was not an option for solving the Malian crisis, and that dialogue was the best option.
In Timbuktu, meanwhile, the situation was not much better than Gao. Al-Hasan Cissé, a driver from town, told Magharebia that “people in Timbuktu are extremely afraid of measures taken by the Islamic groups who I don’t know whether they are al-Qaeda or Ansar al-Din; they are using violence against people, restricting their freedom and imprisoning them.”
“These conditions forced made to escape outside town with my family, especially as the biggest problem facing residents there is lack of food,” Cisse added.
Meanwhile, Sahel states are scheduled to meet Sunday (April 8th) in Nouakchott to discuss the crisis. The foreign ministers of Niger and Mauritania will be met by Algerian Maghreb and African Affairs Minsiter Abdelkader Messahel, according to APS.
Together with Mali, the four countries had formed the core Sahel alliance, creating the Joint Military Staff Committee of the Sahel Region (CEMOC), itself scheduled to meet in Nouakchott later this week.