World

Canadian diplomats freed in Mali appear to be in good health

Two Canadian diplomats, appearing to be in good health, met the Malian president Thursday, a day after they were released by abductors who had kidnapped them four months earlier in Niger.

Unclear whether ransom was paid by African countries for release of Robert Fowler and Louis Guay

Louis Guay, left, and Robert Fowler, second from left, meet with Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, right, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Moctar Ouane, in Bamako, Mali, on Thursday. The two Canadian diplomats, kidnapped four months ago in Niger, were released Wednesday. ((Harouna Traore/Associated Press))

Two Canadian diplomats, smiling and appearing to be in good health, appeared at a Thursday media event alongside Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, one day after they were released by abductors who had kidnapped them four months ago in Niger.

Robert Fowler, a United Nations special envoy to Niger who once served as Canada's ambassador to Italy, and his assistant, Louis Guay, were released in northern Mali on Wednesday.

Two women, one Swiss, the other German, who had been held captive since January, were also released.

Thursday evening's media event in the Malian capital of Bamako was the first public appearance made by Fowler and Guay since the conclusion of their four-month ordeal.

Freelance journalist Martin Vogl, reporting from Bamako, told CBC News that Touré did most of the talking at an "emotional" ceremony, although the Canadian ambassador in Mali, Virginie Saint-Louis, also said a few words. The two diplomats remained silent.

"[Touré] had Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay standing next to him: they both looked well," said Vogl.

Louis Guay, left, and Robert Fowler share a lighter moment at a media event in the Malian capital of Bamako on Thursday. ((Harouna Traore/Associated Press))

Both men had "big beards, but they managed to get suits on and have their hair cut and they looked healthy and they were smiling."

Touré did not speak about the details of the kidnapping or the negotiations to free the two, saying those would emerge later, said Vogl.

"This was very much just a photo opportunity, I think, a chance for the press to see that both men were well, a chance for the Canadian ambassador here in Mali to also express her thanks on behalf of Canada to the Mali government," said Vogl.

The CBC's Margo McDiarmid, reporting from Ottawa, quoted a Canadian official as saying the two weren't physically harmed, "but they were suffering from psychological torture."

There are no more details about exactly what that means, said McDiarmid.

"But they clearly have gone through a very, very tough time over the last four months."

Both men set to return soon

Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke to the two men Thursday and told them he was relieved to hear that they were safe, said a statement issued by his office.

Gabriela Greiner of Switzerland attends a reception at the presidency in Bamako, Mali, on Thursday the day after her release. ((Harouna Traore/Associated Press))

The two men would soon be reunited with their families, and all would fly together to Canada on a government aircraft, the statement said.

Speaking on Wednesday, Harper thanked the governments of Burkina Faso and Mali for their help in negotiating the release of the Canadians.

He denied Ottawa paid any ransom or made any promises regarding militants being held prisoner by other countries. However, he did not explicitly rule out the possibility that either of the other two governments may have done so.

"The government of Canada does not pay ransom or money. The government of Canada does not release prisoners," he told reporters at an Ottawa news conference.

"What efforts or initiatives may have been undertaken by other governments are questions you will have to put to those governments."

Touré, who didn't take any questions, declined to talk about possible ransom payments or prisoner exchanges.

But a source in Mali close to the talks told Radio Canada that discussions were relayed to the local al-Qaeda leader through tribal elders.

He said several trucks drove into Mali's northern deserts yesterday to retrieve Fowler and Guay, and that the al-Qaeda leader even praised Fowler's dignity and courage throughout the four-month ordeal.

Speculation abounds

Mariane Petzold of Germany attends the reception at the presidency in Bamako, Mali Thursday. ((Harouna Traore/Associated Press))

Al-Qaeda's North African branch had claimed responsibility for the kidnappings of the two Canadians. The group, known by the French acronym AQMI, also said it was holding four European tourists taken in January.

The two women released Wednesday are believed to be among those kidnapped in January. A Swiss man and a British man remain missing.

Vogl said the negotiators who worked on the release of the four on Wednesday are very discreet and unlikely to release details.

"All I can say is anybody who knows this situation says that some money must have changed hands," said Vogl.

"Two Austrians were also held by the same group, al-Qaeda, last year, and everybody says that money changed hands in that situation."

Mining a bone of contention

Fowler and Guay were returning from a trip to a Canadian-operated mine in Niger with their UN driver, Soumana Moukaila, when they were abducted on Dec. 14. Their vehicle was found the same day, abandoned in good working condition about 40 kilometres northeast of Niger's capital, Niamey.

Moukaila was freed in March.

Both diplomats were in Niger to help broker a peace deal in the northern part of the country. A minority group of nomads called the Tuaregs are fighting with the government, which they accuse of pillaging their land by opening the country up to uranium mining companies from Canada and other countries. The Tuaregs feel they are not being adequately compensated for the use of their pastoral land.

Tuareg rebels from the Front for Forces of Redress initially claimed responsibility for the abductions, but later retracted that statement.

Some Western intelligence officials believe the Tuaregs may have traded the hostages to al-Qaeda.

Corrections

  • Virginie Saint-Louis is Canada's ambassador to Mali, not Isabelle Roy as initially reported. Saint-Louis replaced Roy in January.
    Apr 23, 2009 8:15 PM ET

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