NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Sahara-based Islamists holding three Algerian diplomats hostage have sent a video of one of them to Mauritania’s ANI news agency, ANI said, the first proof of life in over a year.
Seven Algerians were kidnapped in the north Mali town of Gao when it was taken over by al Qaeda-linked Islamists in April 2012. Three were released, one was reported executed and the last video released to media was in January 2013.
Little has been heard of the diplomats since then, despite France’s dispatch of some 4,000 troops to scatter Islamists who occupied Mali’s north and the deployment of thousands of United Nations peace keepers to the region.
It was not possible to verify the video but Nouakchott-based ANI is frequently used by al Qaeda-linked Islamists operating in the Sahara and Sahel band to publish statements.
ANI said it received a video on Saturday in which Mourad Ghassas, one of the Algerian diplomats, said he and his colleagues were in good health. He said he was speaking on April 9, ANI reported.
It said that in the video Ghassas called on the Algerian government to negotiate with the Islamists to free them.
ANI said it received the video from Al-Mourabitoun, the group created last year when MUJWA, the Islamist group that kidnapped the Algerians in Gao, and fighters led by veteran Sahara Islamist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, merged.
ANI later removed the story from its website but on Sunday it remained on other Mauritanian websites. No reason was given for the removal of the story but ANI has in the past come under pressure from authorities to limit statements from Islamists on incidents involving Algerian interests.
In a statement issued with the video, ANI said Al-Mourabitoun accused Algerian authorities of not respecting a number of terms of the agreement that led to the freeing of the other three Algerians.
There was no immediate comment from the Algerian government.
Islamists have collected tens of millions of dollars from ransoms paid to free foreigners kidnapped in the Sahel-Sahara region over the last decade. The conflict in Mali intensified pressure on states to end payments.
In a separate report on its website, ANI said a spokesman for Al-Mourabitoun had denied reports that Oumar Ould Hamaha, a jihadist with a $3 million U.S. government bounty on his head, had been killed by French air strikes in Mali last month.
Hamaha was a leading figure in the Islamist occupation of northern Mali in 2012, drifting between groups to become spokesman for MUJWA in Gao. Malian military sources said he was killed alongside other Islamists in mid-March.
Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Stephen Powell