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Mali arrests kidnap suspects, Al Qaeda releases pictures of victims

While Al Qaeda is showing signs of waning in southern and western Asia, Al Qaeda-related groups continue to make their presence felt across the African Sahel region.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / December 13, 2011

Three European hostages being held by Al Qaeda are seen surrounded by masked men holding guns in an undisclosed location in Mali, in this undated photo. Al Qaeda's North African wing posted on an Islamist website on Tuesday photographs of five Europeans kidnapped in Mali last month and attacked Mali over its military cooperation with France. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) last week claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the five.

Agence Nouakchott Informations/Reuters

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Malian police have arrested men suspected of having kidnapped five Westerners on behalf of Al Qaeda, while the terror group has released photos of the kidnap victims and demanded an end to Mali’s cooperation with the French government.

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The kidnappings, which took place in two separate incidents on Nov. 24 and 25 near the Malian town of Homburi (see map), are just the latest of a string of attacks on Westerners in Mali by those claiming to be associated with Al Qaeda.

Malian officials paraded three of the four arrested men in front of state TV cameras, and described the men as “subcontractors” who had kidnapped the Westerners on behalf of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a shadowy group that says it is affiliated with the global jihad network. Western security officials say that organized criminal groups, generally associated with the smuggling of drugs and arms through the African Sahel region, have begun to kidnap Westerners and sell them on to radical jihadist groups who then ransom them back to their families.

"We confirm the arrest of four kidnappers," a spokesman for the Malian presidency told Reuters."They are subcontractors for AQIM, to whom they handed over the hostages.”

Many Western governments – including the United States -- now issue strong warnings to their citizens to avoid travel in the arid northern regions of Mali, where the rule of the Malian government is weak. Making conditions worse in the region is the recent downfall of the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who funded, trained, and sheltered numerous Saharan militant groups to use against his neighbors. Many of those groups have now fled into the Sahara and Sahel region, spreading instability into an area that already had enough internal disputes.

A looming food crisis, predicted  by the US’s Famine Early Warning System for 2012, is only likely to make matters worse.

While Al Qaeda is showing signs of waning in Afghanistan and Pakistan, following the killing or arrest of much of its leadership, Al Qaeda-related groups continue to make their presence felt across the African Sahel region, where Saharan and mainly Muslim communities come into contact with the more arable regions dominated by Christians further south.

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