Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo early Sunday announced the “voluntary” repatriation of all of the Spanish aid workers helping out in the Tinduf Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria.
The minister said the government had taken the decision because there are “strong indications that point to a severe escalation in insecurity in the region and of possible action against foreign targets.”
A total of 13 Spanish aid NGO workers have returned to Spain. One did so on Saturday by his own means accompanied by a Peruvian citizen, while the rest arrived earlier Sunday morning in a Spanish military plane at the Torrejón base just outside of Madrid. Two French people and an Italian were also on the plane, while another Spanish aid workers opted to stay at the refugee camp.
The evacuation started on Saturday when a group of aid workers were transferred to a “military base in Tinduf where the waited to be picked up.
“The north of Mali has become a platform for terrorism,” García-Margallo told a news conference. Last week, two Spanish aid workers and their Italian colleague, who had been kidnapped and held by terrorists in Mali since October, were released in exchange for the freeing of three detained suspects thought to have taken part in the abduction.
Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernández and the Italian Rosella Urru had been captured from the Tinduf refugee camp by members of the so-called Movement of Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Muyao).
Two other Spanish aid workers are being held in Somalia, while seven Europeans are in the hands of Al Qaeda in Mali.
García-Margallo said Spaniards are one of the key targets of the terrorist groups. The minister said Spain would support sending a military force being formed by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African states (Ecowas) to Mali to shore up the country’s institutions and “deal with the terrorist groups that have taken over the north of the country.”
The African Union and Ecowas have sought leave of the United Nations Security Council to send the force. “Spain feels itself involved and will join with its allies in supporting the African troops,” García-Margallo said.
NGOs that operate in the Sahrawi refugee camps criticized the decision to evacuate aid workers. A number of them issued a joint statement describing the repatriation as “caving in to blackmail” and lamented the fact that “tens of thousands of refugees, whose lives depend totally on aid workers, had been abandoned to their fate.”
José Taboada, the chairman of the CEAS-Sahara support group for the Sahrawi pointed out that since most of the Spanish aid workers in the area were involved in projects financed by the Foreign Ministry arm, the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development (AECID), the “recommendation to abandon the area was practically an imperative.”