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FACTDROP: Kidnapped Algerian governor freed in Libya


Kidnapped Algerian governor freed in Libya

Flying high: The Al Qaeda flag, with Arabic writing and a moon design, was seen flying alongside a Libyan national flag above Benghazi's courthouse, November 2, 2011.

Πηγή: The Peninsula
By Reuters
Jan 18 2012

ALGIERS: A kidnapped Algerian regional governor has been freed after his captors were intercepted inside Libya, officials said yesterday, an incident that will raise new concerns about instability spilling over from Libya to its neighbours.

Two Algerian security sources earlier said the governor was being held by Al Qaeda. Security experts have warned the group is exploiting turmoil in Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi to carve out a safe haven.

Algeria’s state news agency, citing a source close to the Interior Ministry, said the governor, Mohamed Laid Khelfi, was freed by the Libyan authorities when they stopped his kidnappers about 150km inside Libyan territory.

The agency said the governor would soon be handed over to the Algerian authorities at a nearby border crossing.

An Algerian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “The governor is safe and well. He was freed. That is all I can say for now.”

The kidnapping, deep in the Sahara desert, was the most audacious attack on a senior official for years in Algeria, which has been fighting a two-decade battle against Islamist insurgents.

There was no immediate comment from officials in Libya’s interim government on the incident.

Khelfi, governor of the Illizi region about 1,700km southeast of the Algerian capital, was driving away from a meeting on the Libyan border on Monday afternoon when three armed men stopped his convoy, the Interior Ministry said.

The attackers released his driver and an aide, but took the governor in the direction of the Libyan border, a ministry statement said. He later made telephone contact with his family.

The ministry did not identify the kidnappers, saying only they were young Algerian men who were known to the authorities.

Two Algerian security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the governor had been held by Al Qaeda’s north African branch, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The group carries out kidnappings, ambushes and suicide bombings, mainly in Algeria but also in neighbouring states which straddle the Sahara desert.

With backing from Western states, which are concerned the group could spread its activities further afield, Algerian security forces have been able to reduce the insurgency to a small rump of fighters hiding out in remote areas.

But the instability in Libya could give AQIM a new lease of life by providing the insurgents with a source of weapons and a safe haven in vast desert tracts which the new Libyan authorities lack the capacity to police.

“This (kidnapping) is a very dangerous escalation which shows that the group is feeling secure and strong because of the chaos in Libya,” said Samer Riad, a security expert who runs Algeria’s news portal.

Western diplomats say Algeria is under serious threat from al Qaeda and is an important ally in helping fight the spread of the insurgency. Some security experts say the al Qaeda threat also helps Algeria garner international support.

The kidnapping was unusual because in Algeria, governors and all other senior government officials almost always travel with heavy security details, making them a “hard” target, which the insurgents tend to avoid.

One of the security officials who spoke to Reuters said the governor had on Monday been at Debdeb, a border crossing with Libya, trying to calm down local protesters angry at unemployment and poor living conditions.

Among the protesters were relatives of Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, one of AQIM’s leading field commanders in the Sahara desert, the official said.

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