#AQIM kidnap, hostage swap, but where is #Mauritania gendarme Ely?

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The story of gendarme Ely Ould Mokhtar has been full of holes and contradictions from the outset. For Al-Qaeda to take a soldier hostage is unusual enough. For it to happen in Mauritania, where Aziz has claimed to have eradicated the AQIM threat was unremarkable, knowing his passion for the politically fantastic, but as the details emerged it became increasingly perplexing.

First we heard that there were only three gendarmes at the Adel Begrou outpost at the time of the attack, in December 2011, because the others were off playing football or something. Then there was a story saying one of the three who were supposed to be on guard was “in the bathroom” and the other “didn’t have his shoes on”. So apparently it fell upon poor Ely, as the only member of his squad to have the misfortune to be up, dressed and on duty, to be taken hostage. What utter garbage and nonsense, you might well think. But the life of a gendarme in a remote Mauritanian outpost is a far cry from Hollywood movie sets or Tom Clancy novel.

But then the video “ransom” demand arrived – from AQIM’s “Al Vourghan” brigade, led by Algerian national Yahya Abou El Houmam, or so we were told.

The video shows Ely in handcuffs, beret balanced precariously on his head, seated in front of a typically “Al Qaeda” style white on black banner that doesn’t quite cover the blue plastic tarp covering the backdrop – perhaps a store of animal feed, which would help to explain the flies buzzing around. The first thing that struck me was he had no signs of injury – a very encouraging sign but indicating that he had not put up much of a struggle, as one might expect of a gendarme. Then I realised that there were no AQIM fighters in the video. This is a departure the other recent ransom video or photographs released by AQIM showing their European hostages. The banner in is far better physical condition that the one we see in the still photograph below – complete with weapon-toting terrorists. The demands were unusual too: the release of “two prisoners” – no names were given, although they are surely all known; and that Ely must never return to his post as a gendarme.

hostages

Although the military claimed to be sending teams out in search of their comrade, government officials showed no interest in rescuing Ely, and the only attention they paid to the case at first was to pressure his family into staying quiet, away from the media. There was a very curious story immediately after Ely went missing, from a mining operation during an industrial action. Apparently, a group of soldiers appeared but told workers they were not there to break their strike, but were searching for a missing gendarme. Quite why AQIM would be hiding out with a hostage inside in a mining camp in Mauritania, instead of high-tailing it out of the country to Mali or even Senegal, I am not quite sure.

The usual type of trashy rumours flared and died about Ely’s case, some focusing on his family, which was very unpleasant. A second demand was supposedly issued  in January, giving the government 20 days to reach agreement or Ely would be killed. The time ticked on towards the deadline and eventually, the government saw fit to comment. Ely, they said, is as good as dead already. They had no intention of negotiating for his life and would not be releasing any prisoners.

Then in late February and early March we experienced a completely botched spiral of stories linking Ely to Rosella Urru, one of three European aid workers kidnapped from a refugee camp in Tindouf  in October 2011 – before Ely’s alleged abduction – and claiming their release. It was utter fabrication, but it did help to obscure the monumental cock-up by British and Nigerian forces that cost the lives of an English and an Italian held hostage in Nigeria since May 2011. The Italians were reported to be furious with the UK, well with Cameron in particular, for authorising the botched operation without consulting them. No one thought to mention the recent visit to Mauritania by Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, as part of a delegation from the EU Parliament, but I don’t like to omit any small coincidence. Only after this tragedy was revealed did the Ely story take on a new dimension, with the reported transfer of  a prisoner and then later a report that Ely had been released. But where are the photographs of his jubilant reunion with his pregnant wife and his long-suffering mother? And is he excused from returning to his life as a gendarme, as demanded by AQIM?

Instead, we are presented with this image on an obscure website, claiming to be the first picture of Ely since his release. But he appears to have been treated so well by his captors that he has actually reversed time and now appears younger and a little heavier. The image is an odd pose, just like the sort of photograph taken of a brand new recruit. Which is exactly what I suspect it to be: Ely’s ID photo from his initiation into the gendarmerie. So, where is Ely?

Kidnapped gendarme Ely Ould Mokhtar

"Before"

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"After"

French working class rally for their presidential hopeful

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Thousands of people have turned out to rally in support France’s far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Some 30,000 people joined in a march at Paris’ Place de la Nation.

Melenchon – who’s a staunch anti-capitalist -has verbally attacked France’s political elite, a move analysts say is helping him shake up the campaign.

Opinion polls show he’s surpassed the symbolic 10 percent mark, with only five weeks to go before the first round of voting on 22nd April.

euronews – YouTube.

Slavery in Mauritania is NOT an invitation for US-backed intervention

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Modern-day slavery in Mauritania

Modern-day slavery in Mauritania

Excellent to see CNN publish this detailed and in-depth report on modern-day slavery in Mauritania, researched covertly during a visit there in December 2011. But the extract below, from the end of the report invites a dangerous assumption: it could be interpreted as an excuse to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign nation. I believe this is not the right attitude at all. Pay attention, shine a light on injustice, give it airtime or column inches, raise the issues in international discussions, provide funding to appropriate non-government organisations created and staffed by local activists, but please, don’t assume that it is any other country’s responsibility to interfere. It would also help international anti-slavery activists considerably if the headline didn’t give the impression that Mauritania is the last and only place on earth where children and adults are subjected to slavery in its various forms. In fact, it is a pandemic affecting many countries worldwide.

From the CNN post:

“Help us to change our country”

Activists say the international community has done relatively little to pressure Mauritania to address slavery. “The French government and American government have had a lot of opportunities to help Mauritania step up and deal with this — and have pretty much squandered those opportunities,” says Kevin Bales, of Free the Slaves. People tend to focus on topics like child trafficking and sex slavery, says Sarah Mathewson, Africa program coordinator at Anti-Slavery International, rather than the old-world slavery in Mauritania.

The U.S. ambassador to Mauritania, Jo Ellen Powell, called slavery in the country “completely unacceptable and abhorrent” and said America is pressuring Mauritania to change. The nation should invest in the education of its children rather than “keeping them sweeping floors somewhere or herding goats,” she said. “Human capital development is something that’s very important to the Mauritanians and I hope that they get that connection.”

For a few weeks after returning home, I tried to block the most troubling images from my mind: haunting villages where kids eat sand; a slave owner who smiled while he told us about the free labor he gets from people with darker skin; and, most of all, the piercing eyes of a woman whose master left her infant in the sand to die.

Mauritania is a place of agonizing beauty, one that’s hard not to love and curse. Its people have lived with unfulfilled potential and broken promises for decades, since the country first tried to abolish slavery in 1905. But that could change, several activists told us, if Mauritania knew the rest of the world was watching.

The United Nations has proposed a number of changes the Mauritanian government could make to quicken the end of slavery. Among them: Pay lawyers to represent victims; allow international monitors into the country to conduct a full survey of slavery; and fund centers like the one SOS runs to rehabilitate slaves who have claimed their freedom.

It would help if a global public demanded these changes. “It’s a destitute country,” says Kevin Bales. “It needs a few friends in the world.”

Perhaps then women like Moulkheir and Selek’ha could find justice.

And Boubacar and Abdel could get their wish.

We asked the SOS founders how they will know when their fight against slavery in Mauritania is over — how they’ll know they have won. Both men had the same answer:

When a former slave becomes president.

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