By Jemal Oumar
More than a week after the kidnapping of Swiss national Béatrice Stockly near Timbuktu, the Islamist group in control of the city claims it rescued the aid worker from her abductors and is willing hand her over to Swiss authorities.
A spokesman for Ansar al-Din on Sunday (April 22nd) said Stockly was with his group and that contacts were under way with the Swiss.
“The Swiss national is in good health,” Ansar al-Din official spokesperson Sanad Ould Bouamama told the paper April 22nd. “She is now in Timbuktu with the group fighters. We’re now looking or a way to get in touch with the Swiss government to hand her over as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, AFP cited a security source as saying that Ansar al-Din fought with the Swiss woman’s kidnappers, who had planned to sell her to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A separate source told the news agency that the Islamists rejected a humanitarian group’s offer for mediation, saying they preferred to deal directly with the Swiss.
In a phone conversation with Magharebia, Timbuktu resident Omar Ag Othman said the Swiss national was working as a social activist for years, helping many residents of the city.
“I saw Béatrice last Sunday in a small room when I was slaughtering some sheep for some Ansar al-Din members at their living quarters,” he added. “I saw her eat, and she was in good health. I also talked with her directly, although the group members prevented people from meeting her.”
Mohamed Cissé, who knew Stockly, told Magharebia: “Béatrice is loved by most people in Timbuktu because she is close to the people. She used to talk to them, console them and joke with them. She was providing many social services to them. Due to the deep relation between her and the people, she refused to leave town, even when Western nationals were threatened with kidnapping by the groups that entered Timbuktu.”
“She was always saying, ‘I won’t leave because my family is the people of Timbuktu’,” Cissé said.
He added that “the people now talk about her release with much relief, and they hope that many of the Western nationals, who were living in Timbuktu and were forced by fear for their lives to leave town, would return.”
Bechir Ould Bebana, an analyst, believes that Ansar al-Din is using the hostage issue as a way to improve their image internationally as “a non-terrorist group”.
“It can also be considered a positive gesture on their part toward the calls for dialogue which the Malian government has made to various Touareg groups,” Ould Bebana said.
“This may be because Ansar al-Din, which is described as a hard-line group allied with al-Qaeda, now understands that it is impossible to establish an Islamic emirate governed by the Islamic Sharia laws without making many positive signs to the world to show that they are different from al-Qaeda,” the analyst added.
Meanwhile, Abdel Hamid al-Ansari, an expert on northern Mali, told Magharebia, “Ansar al-Din’s move in rescuing the Swiss national reflects a major change in the group’s extremist approach towards Western nationals.”
“It’s a change that comes just a few days before the conference that will bring together all Touareg tribes in northern Mali on April 25th to convince Ansar al-Din leader Iyad Ag Ghaly to relinquish his alliance with al-Qaeda,” al-Ansari noted.