MYSTERIOUS MURDERS OF TUAREGS NEGOTIATING WITH AL-QAEDA KIDNAPPERS IN MALI
The bodies of three brutally executed men were found in the desert region of Kidal in northern Mali last week. The victims turned out to be two Tuareg negotiators and a driver, assigned to mediate the release of two Austrian tourists, Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber, who were kidnapped in February by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) while on an “adventure holiday” in Tunisia. The kidnappers are believed to be under the command of AQIM leader Abdel Hamid Abu Zayd, though the Saharan amir of AQIM, Yahia Abu Amar, selected the mediators and made arrangements for the meeting. In exchange for the Austrians, AQIM is demanding a ransom and the release of an Islamist and his wife that the group claims are being held and tortured in “the Austrian Guantanamo” (AFP, April 7).
The murders of two of the six mediators appointed to negotiate the release of the two Austrians came only several days after negotiation efforts began (Al-Jazeera, April 16). The mediators were former rebel Tuareg commanders who were recently integrated into the Malian army as part of a peace deal struck last year. A student who was acting as a driver for mediator Baraka Cheikh was also killed after apparently being mistaken for Colonel Muhammad Ould Midou, another Tuareg officer (El Khabar [Algiers], April 20). On arrival at a tent sent up for the purpose of negotiations, the men were tied up and repeatedly shot in the head.
The military commander of the Malian Tuareg rebels is Lt. Col. Hassan Fagaga, who has twice been integrated into the Malian army but has returned to the desert rebellion both times. Fagaga is now reported to be in league with rebel leader Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, who held out from last year’s accord with the government (Reuters, April 8). In March Fagaga threatened to “eliminate” any al-Qaeda operatives who ventured into the area controlled by the Tuareg rebels, though he acknowledged that some AQIM members had infiltrated the area around Kidal, close to the Algerian border and the scene of heavy fighting between the rebels and the Malian army last month (El Khabar, March 5).
Though there is little evidence so far as to who is responsible for this crime, some Tuareg suspect intelligence agents connected to the Malian Army of carrying out the murders. Referring to continuing ethnic tensions within Mali, Hassan Fagaga claims: “There is a plan to execute the commanders in the Malian army of Tuareg origin in the north…” (El Khabar, April 17). After the announcement of an unofficial truce earlier this month between Tuareg rebels and the Malian army, the heavy fighting seen in March has slackened off, though both sides remain on a war footing. The Tuareg rebels have their own hostages: 33 Malian soldiers who were captured last month but not released as they were supposed to be under the terms of the latest ceasefire.
Negotiations for the release of the Austrians appear to have been suspended, though the Austrian Foreign Ministry asserts that efforts are continuing to obtain the release of the pair. Libya has also become involved in the negotiations at the highest levels, but three deadlines set by AQIM have already expired. Austria has denied sending its “Cobra” Special Forces team (Einsatzkommando Cobra, or EKO) to Mali to retrieve the hostages (El Khabar, March 26).
TALIBAN COMMANDERS ACCUSED OF BLOWING UP NATO OIL TANKERS RELEASED ON BAIL
Four Taliban commanders arrested for organizing the destruction of nearly 40 oil tankers at the entrance to the Khyber Pass on March 23 have been released on bail. The tankers were carrying fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan when six bombs ripped through the parking lot where they were awaiting clearance to pass through the Torkham border crossing (see Terrorism Monitor, April 3). As part of the terms of their release, the South Waziristan Taliban commanders agreed to return 50,000 gallons of fuel and two oil tankers to Khyber Agency merchants and to release two abducted drivers (Daily Times [Lahore], April 17).
The bail conditions were arranged after a jirga, or council, composed of Waziristan Taliban leaders—including Mir Qasim Janikhel and Ishaq Wazir—and Zakhakehl and Qambarkhel elders met to decide the case. The four accused Taliban commanders all hail from the Janikhel Wazir sub-tribe and include Khalid Rehman. The jirga was held at the home of Javed Ibrahim Paracha, who stated he had been asked to host the meeting by Interior Affairs Advisor Rehman Malik and Interior Secretary Kamal Shah (Daily Times, April 17). The Zakhakel and Qambarkhel elders agreed to withdraw their testimony against the suspects after initially charging them with terrorism.
Paracha was an interesting choice to head the jirga. A lawyer by trade, Paracha has aided many Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects and created support networks for the families of convicted terrorists. Paracha has been imprisoned twice by Pakistani President Musharraf for his political activities and claims to have been tortured by the FBI while incarcerated. According to Paracha, they were unable to coerce him by physical means so they offered him half a million dollars to become a “bridge” between the United States and the Taliban and al-Qaeda (New Yorker, January 28). He was a member of the national assembly from 1997 to 2002 on the ticket of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and has built two madrassas, where the students are taught that “only Islam can provide the justice they seek” (New Statesmen, March 28, 2005). Paracha is also responsible for promoting sectarian attacks on the tiny Shiite community in his hometown of Kohat and neighboring villages (Daily Times, February 11, 2006).
There are other reports that Paracha was approached by the United States in 2005 to use his links with the militants to act as a conduit between Washington and the Taliban. At first, Paracha confirmed meeting to discuss this with State Department Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and several U.S. military officials at an Islamabad hotel, but later stated that his visitors were “American businessmen who did ask me to help the U.S. ‘reconcile’ with al-Qaida and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. The businessmen sought my help against anti-American feelings and for a safe exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan under an agreement” (Daily Times, November 17; 2005; Dawn [Karachi], November 17, 2005; UPI, November 22, 2005).
Meanwhile the main highway supplying Coalition forces in Afghanistan from Pakistan continues to suffer interruptions, the latest being a six day closure last week due to fighting between Lashkar-i-Islam militants and Korikhel tribesmen resisting the militants’ attempt to impose “moral reforms” in the region (The News [Islamabad], April 19).