Canada charges former Al-Qaeda unit leader Belmokhtar

OTTAWA (AFP) - Canada has lodged charges against Mohktar Belmohktar, former head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for his role in the kidnapping of two diplomats five years ago, a spokesman said on Wednesday.

AQIM is known for May suicide bombings in Niger that killed at least 20, as well as the dramatic January seizing of a desert gas plant in neighboring Algeria in a siege that left 38 hostages dead, also in retaliation for intervention in Mali.

Back in December 2008 AQIM, snatched Canadian Robert Fowler, UN special envoy to Niger, and his assistant Louis Guay west of Niamey. AQIM claimed responsibility in February 2009 for the kidnapping of the Canadian diplomats, and of four European tourists snatched in January 2010.

After more than four months in detention at the hands of the group, the Canadians were finally released after a Malian mediator spoke with Belmohktar.

Federal police (RCMP) filed charges of kidnapping with the intent to raise money for terror against Belmohktar and Omar Ould Hamahathe for snatching the Canadians in Niger in 2008, said RCMP spokesman Laurence Trottier.

While the hostages were abducted in Niger they were released in northern Mali close to the border. Both Mali and Niger have been plagued by Tuareg uprisings in the region making military control of the zone more difficult.

The Sahel, with vast stretches of inhospitable desert, is notoriously difficult to control. Rebel movements and other armed groups roam largely unhindered over borders between the countries.

Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb has said it intended to unify armed Islamist groups in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, as well as emerging groups in countries bordering the Sahara like Niger and Mali.

It has also claimed a series of deadly suicide bombings in Algeria, other attacks in the region and several kidnappings.

Born in the Algerian Sahara in 1972, Belmokhtar led the AQIM for years before leaving to lead a splinter group in late 2012. The kidnapping was his first big action in the new position.