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Terrorism & Security

In N. Africa, Al Qaeda offshoot claims six Western hostages

The claim by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that it holds hostages kidnapped more than a month ago fuels fears that the group is expanding its reach.

By Jonathan Adams / February 19, 2009

Kidnapped: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed that it seized six Westerners in Niger, including this British man, shown in an undated photograph. The other kidnapped hostages include a Canadian UN envoy, two Swiss nationals, and one German.

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Al Qaeda's North African franchise has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists in Niger. The claims have not been verified, press reports say. But if true, the news is likely to fuel concerns that the Algeria-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is expanding its reach in Africa and increasingly targeting Westerners.

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Two Canadian diplomats, including the United Nations envoy to Niger, Robert Fowler, were abducted in mid-December. The four tourists – a Swiss couple, German woman, and British man – were abducted Jan. 22 in Niger after visiting a Tuareg cultural festival in neighboring Mali. (Click here to see a map of the region from the CIA World Factbook.)

Initial suspicion for the kidnapping of the Canadian diplomats centered on the Tuareg, a nomadic group that is fighting the Niger and Mali governments to win autonomy for their homeland. But the Tuareg had denied involvement, reported the BBC.

The BBC reported Wednesday that the Al Qaeda claim came in an audio recording.

The audio recording of the man, who identified himself as Salah Abu Mohammed, was broadcast by Arabic satellite station al-Jazeera. ...
The authenticity of the tape, in which the group said it would soon issue conditions for the hostages' release, has not been verified.

The news service quoted Maghreb analyst Mohamed Ben-Madani as saying the move fits AQIM's "usual tactics."

"It is their normal practice not to speak until they are sure that they have got good people for good money and they are in a safe place before any negotiations," he told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme....
Mr Ben-Madani said the group's influence is spreading and it now has small branches in places like Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria and Morocco.
"It is spreading and growing in numbers," he said.
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