After nine months of captivity in West Africa, two Spanish aid workers kidnapped by AQIM arrived home yesterday. Another hostage held with them was freed in March.
The release of these workers follows the death of another hostage held separately by an AQIM group, a Frenchman named Michel Germaneau.
Debates about how to handle hostage situations with AQIM will continue, but it is noteworthy that while military efforts to free Germaneau failed, the successful release of the Spaniards likely came about because of an exchange.
The release appeared to be linked to Mauritania’s repatriation to Mali earlier this month of a militant convicted of the kidnapping of Vilalta, Pascual and Gamez, a European security analyst said on Monday.
“There was a swap, though it is unclear if there was also a ransom paid,” the analyst said on condition of anonymity.
Officials in Mauritania and Mali have declined to comment on whether the extradition of Omar Sid-Ahmed Ould Hamma, alias Omar Sahraoui, to his home country was linked to efforts to free the hostages.
This would not be the first time European and West African authorities have pursued some kind of exchange with AQIM, nor the first time that the group killed a hostage.
Mali released four Islamist prisoners earlier this year in an apparent swap for French hostage Pierre Camatte, freed by AQIM in February. Mali was criticized for the move by regional neighbours Algeria, Mauritania and Niger.
The group, which grew out of the Salafist movement in Algeria and has since shifted south into the vast and lawless Sahel, also killed British captive Edwin Dyer last year after London refused to give in to its demands.
There are compelling reasons not to hold prisoner exchanges with AQIM or pay them ransoms. But there are also good reasons to save hostages’ lives. Like I’ve said before, personally I would be reluctant to abandon a hostage to his or her fate if there was a way to prevent a death. But no one is saying these decisions are easy. As kidnappings continue, so will the dilemmas that European and African governments face in dealing with AQIM.