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.
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?
- #Mauritania rallies behind kidnapped gendarme (lissnup.wordpress.com)
- A look inside AQIM (lissnup.wordpress.com)
- AQIM threatens to execute hostages (moroccotomorrow.org)
- Big Happenings in a Big Desert (thewasat.wordpress.com)
- British hostage murder: hunting ground of a lethal terrorist alliance (telegraph.co.uk)
- Breaking: British, Italian hostages killed by Muslims captors in Nigeria (atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com)
- Mauritania vows to fight Al-Qaeda (moroccotomorrow.org)