Malian authorities have freed four prisoners whose release was demanded by an al-Qaeda group threatening to kill a French hostage, prompting Mauritania to recall its ambassador in protest on Monday.
“The four al-Qaeda combatants were freed on Sunday night,” a Malian security source told reporters in Bamako, insisting that Mali had not bowed to al-Qaeda’s demands as the men had completed their nine-month prison terms.
The release of the four men — two from Algeria, one from Burkina Faso and one from Mauritania — also risks angering Algiers, where the two Algerians are wanted in connection with attacks.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had demanded the release of the four in exchange for French hostage Pierre Camatte, extending a previous deadline to last Saturday and threatening to kill him if their demands were not met.
As well as Camatte, who is thought to be hidden in the northern Malian desert, AQIM is also holding three Spanish hostages and an Italian couple, kidnapped in neighboring Mauritania within days of each other in November.
The release of the prisoners prompted anger in Nouakchott, where the foreign ministry said the move was “surprising” given that one of those released is wanted in Mauritania.
“Mauritania, while expressing its condemnation and rejection of this measure, has decided to recall its ambassador to Bamako for consultation,” Mauritania’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
“This non-cordial measure taken by the Malian authorities harms age-old relations between the two countries. Above all it’s a flagrant contradiction of judicial cooperation accords and security coordination agreements,” between the countries, the ministry said.
Mali had long insisted it would not give in to AQIM’s demands, but last Thursday a court gave the four prisoners sentences that corresponded with the amount of time they had already spent in custody, paving the way for their release.
“We had a problem: how to do everything we could to save the life of the Frenchman,” an adviser to Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure told reporters.
“It was our duty to ask people in the north [of Mali] to get involved. We owe this to France, a friendly country,” the adviser said.
It could be several days before the Frenchman is freed, a Malian security source said.