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Three aid workers held by criminal gang in Mali

Sources dismiss reports that they were taken by an Al Qaeda cell

Spanish aid workers Ainhoa Fernández de Rincón and Enric Gonyalons, along with their fellow Italian volunteer Rosella Urru, who were kidnapped more than two weeks ago in Rabouni, Algeria are being held by a local criminal gang and not by an Al Qaeda cell as previously believed, source say.

The three were kidnapped from a Sahrawi refugee camp near the Polisario Front headquarters, where they were working with refugees and taken to Mali, authorities say.

The group that perpetrated the kidnapping was made up of Arab Malians led by a former lieutenant of the notorious "one-eyed" Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar was responsible for the 2009 kidnapping of three Catalan aid workers in Mauritania. The Malian Arabs speak the same Arabic "hassania" dialect as the Sahrawis and the criminal gang is supported by a powerful Tuareg smuggling group.

Mix with Al Qaeda

"Even though they put forward ideological arguments when they negotiate ransoms, the kidnappers on the whole are bandits whose lives and their shady dealings sometimes intertwine with Al Qaeda," say local sources.

The kidnapped victims have been held for more than 10 days in the desert north of Timbuktu. No demand for a ransom has yet been made.

It is possible that the kidnappers could end up "selling" the hostages to the "one-eyed one" because they fear that they could be rescued, or because they don't have any direct connections to Spanish negotiators, say sources.

Some in the Polisario Front (which supports independence for Moroccan-ruled Western Sahara), including Brahim Ghali, the organization's representative in Algeria, and Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Front's leader, have not made any public statement blaming AQIM for the kidnapping.

Sources at the Moroccan Interior Ministry also rule out Al Qaeda responsibility. They believe, instead, that the three aid workers were kidnapped by a Sahrawi drug trafficker as revenge against the son of a high Polisario official, who reportedly refused to turn over part of a drug shipment to him. The trafficker, according to sources, began by kidnapping church ministers to try to get his shipment. But when this didn't work, he opted to take the three Europeans.

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