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Mauritania extradites aid worker kidnapper to Mali

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Mauritania has extradited to Mali a man convicted for his role in kidnapping three Spanish aid workers, two of whom still believed held by al Qaeda’s North African wing.

The extradition of Omar Sid-Ahmed Ould Hamma, alias Omar Sahraoui, to his home country took place on Monday, according to a statement issued by Mauritania’s Communications Ministry.

But a Malian official close to the case said the man was sent back on August 11.

Officials declined to comment on whether the extradition was linked to any effort to free the remaining two hostages, Albert Vilalta and Roque Pascual.

“We can’t confirm that he will be exchanged for the Spanish hostages, even if we believe there is a link between the two,” the Malian source said on condition of anonymity.

Ould Hamma was sentenced to 12 years’ hard labor for the kidnapping last year, one of a string of attacks that has raised the profile of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which numbers a few hundred fighters.

Vilalta and Pascual are thought to be still held in an unknown location in the vast Sahara desert shared by Mauritania, Mali, Algeria and Niger. Ould Hamma first admitted involvement but later denied it.

AQIM is a wing of al Qaeda in North Africa responsible for a string of kidnappings. Mali has long been seen as a weak spot in regional efforts to fight the Islamists and was criticized by neighbors for a prisoner swap it agreed to earlier this year.

AQIM emerged in 2007 from the Salafist movement in Algeria which waged a campaign of suicide bombings and ambushes against military and international targets in the 1990s.

The group has since shifted a large part of its activities south to the Sahara desert -- using the politically volatile and sparsely populated area as a safe haven for its hostage and drugs smuggling operations.

AQIM said in late July it killed a French hostage as revenge for a raid by French-backed Mauritanian troops on a base in Mali -- the second killing of a hostage claimed by the group in the Sahara.

Reporting by Laura Martel and Tiemoko Diallo; writing by Mark John and Richard Valdmanid; Editing by Maria Golovnina