ALGIERS (Reuters) - Seven Algerian diplomats abducted by Islamist rebels in northern Mali in April have been freed, an Algerian security source and a Malian Islamist source said on Friday, a move that could ease tension along the volatile border.
“They are all safe and should be back home very soon,” the security source said, adding that the seven consisted of a consul and six consular staff who were based in Mali.
Security officials in Algeria do not normally speak on the record and there was no confirmation from the government.
But, contacted by telephone, a source from the Ansar al-Dine group now controlling much of northern Mali said the diplomats were all “free and safe”.
Algeria said in April that its diplomats were kidnapped from Gao, part of a swathe of territory in northern Mali then under the control of Tuareg-led separatists who had pushed out the military in a rebellion launched in January.
That rebellion has since been hijacked by a mix of local and foreign Islamist fighters who have taken control of northern Mali, imposing strict Islamic law and destroying ancient Sufi tombs in Timbuktu, classified by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
A Malian security source in Bamako and an Islamist fighter in the northern town of Gao, both of whom asked not to be named, confirmed earlier that at least three hostages had been freed but could not say whether the other four were also going home.
Western and African governments are struggling to muster a response to the crisis as politicians in the capital Bamako continue to squabble over how the country should be governed after a coup removed the president in March.
Algeria shares a border with Mali. Its diplomats may have been targeted because the Algerian government has been waging a long campaign against Islamist militants, including al Qaeda’s north African wing, on its own territory.
Analysts and sources say Algeria is concerned about the turmoil in Mali but is reluctant to intervene lest it become embroiled in a lengthy and messy cross-border conflict.
Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako and David Lewis in Dakar; writing by Lin Noueihed; editing by Mark Heinrich