African Union seeks crackdown on ransom payments
* Kidnap cash used to fund militants: African Union official
* AU to consider draft document on ransom payments
By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, June 18 (Reuters) - The African Union (AU) will ask member states to speak out against paying ransoms to free hostages held by militant groups, a senior official in the organisation told Reuters.
Some African states, as well as governments in Europe and the United States, are concerned that militant groups, including those with ties to the al Qaeda network, are using ransom money to finance violence.
Diplomats have expressed particular concern about the northern Sahara where a group called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been involved in hostage-taking. Diplomats say money routinely changes hands in such kidnapping cases.
Ramtane Lamamra, the AU's Commissioner for Peace and Security, said he would be presenting a draft for consideration by member states dealing with the ransom issue.
"We should be firm on this. Paying ransoms will reinforce terrorism," Lamamra told Reuters on Wednesday on the sidelines of a conference in the Algerian capital organized by the African Centre for the Study and Research of Terrorism (CAERT).
"Several African countries have not known terrorism. They may think they are immune. But no country is immune and we must be firm and vigilant," said Lamamra, a former Algerian ambassador to the United States.
AQIM said it had kidnapped two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists late last year. The two diplomats and two of the tourists were released in April in Mali. Officials did not say if ransoms were paid.
AQIM this month killed one of the remaining hostages, Briton Edwin Dyer, and a Swiss national is still being held.
MILITANTS' DESERT HAVEN
It was not clear if the latest initiative would be effective. Previous attempts to organise a collective response to the problem have foundered, and a conference of regional leaders proposed by Mali has been postponed several times.
The murder of the British hostage has focused attention on the vast, thinly-populated desert tracts that span parts of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
Security experts say Islamist insurgents have exploited weak government control, a lack of coordination between neighbouring states and porous borders to turn the area into a safe haven.
Gilles De Kerchove, the European Union's Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, said more should be done.
"They all need a lot of support, capacity-building because they don't control their territory," he told Reuters in an interview at the counter-terrorism conference in Algiers.
Mali says it is doing what it can to tackle the insurgents. Its security forces clashed with a group of suspected al Qaeda militants in the north of the country, a military source in Mali said on Wednesday. For a related story, click on [ID:nLH835319]
But a senior official with the CAERT think-tank, which was set up by the African Union, said: "Mali should do much more to curb AQIM's activities in its country." (Editing by Jon Hemming)
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