Algerian soldiers kill four suspected of kidnapping Spanish aid workers

Government sources believe hostages have been taken across the border to Mali by Al Qaeda group

EL PAÍS / I. C. / M. G. Madrid / Tunis / Rabat 26 OCT 2011 - 18:53 CET

Algerian soldiers have shot and killed four members of the terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda that are suspected of taking part in kidnapping over the weekend of three NGO aid workers - two of whom are Spanish - from a Sahrawi refugee camp near the desert town of Tindouf in Algeria, according to local press reports.

The Spanish government believes that Ainhoa Fernández de Rincón from Madrid and Enric Gonyalons Sureda from Mallorca, and their Italian colleague, are being held in Mali, where they arrived late Monday, government sources say.

The Algerian newspaper El Khabar reported Wednesday that the Algerian army, which is combing the desert looking for the aid workers, destroyed two four-wheel-drive vehicles and killed four members of the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) organization, who participated in the kidnapping of Fernández de Rincón, Gonyalons and the Italian woman.

Meanwhile, the pro-Western Sahara independence Polisario Front said that it hasn't ruled out the theory that Sahrawis helped out in Saturday's kidnapping.

"There are a lot of traitors, people who are just looking for money, so we haven't ruled out anything," said Mohamed Mustafa Teleimidi, the Polisario's representative in the Balearic Islands, after meeting with regional government representatives.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez said that the Spanish government is working "day and night" to ensure that the aid workers return home as soon as possible. Jiménez, who was in Rabat meeting with Spanish businessmen who work in Morocco, didn't want to give out too many details on what the government is doing. Nor did the foreign minister want to put a timeline on when she believes that the three will be released and declined to say where they were being held or whether they were taken to Mali, as sources confirmed to EL PAÍS.

According to people who know the area, the three volunteers arrived on Monday night to an area north of Timbuktu in Mali, which is controlled by notorious AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Belmokhtar is said to have been responsible for the kidnapping of the three Catalan relief workers in 2009 who were later released after months of negotiations.

According to reports, the attack on the aid workers residence in the Rabouni refugee camp was perpetrated by a leader of the so-called katiba terrorist cell that operates in Mali and not directly by members of AQIM.

The sources also agree with Teleimidi's assessment that for the kidnappers to enter the camp they must have received assistance from someone who spoke Hassaniya - the Arab dialect that is spoken in Western Sahara and Mauritania - to get past the security officials at the camp gates.

For her part, Jiménez said that the Spanish government was working on new protocols for aid workers who want to travel to the Sahrawi refugee camps in the future.

"There are now risks which beforehand didn't exist. That is why the government is working on a series of new protocols to guarantee high security for those aid workers who want to go to the Polisario Front camps," she said.

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