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2012-11-02

Sahel clerics plead for release of hostages

By Walid Ramzi in Algiers and Jemal Oumar in Nouakchott for Magharebia – 02/11/12

Sheikhs, religious scholars and imams from seven Sahel-Saharan countries called from Mecca for armed groups in Mali to lay down their weapons, free their hostages and return to society.

Clerics from Algeria, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad drafted their "Appeal from Holy Land to Spare Blood" while in Mecca for Eid al-Adha. The first-of-its kind joint statement was broadcast on Sunday (October 28th).

The African religious figures said that the armed groups in Mali must stop fighting their own relatives and sowing discord in the umma. Such actions, the clerics said, have nothing to do with jihad or "God's Sharia".

"This is an appeal to those who carry arms in mountains and desert and kidnap hostages," the statement said. "We call upon you from this holy land in this holy month and day with the same call used by God and His Prophet: 'Join peace, all of you'."

"What's taking place is feeding strife and targeting security within the Islamic umma in such a way that it serves the interests of the enemies of Islam and divides the lines of believers," said Sidi Mohamed, the director of religious guidance for Mauritania's Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

According to Nigerian preacher Mohamed Mbadol, the group of religious scholars confirmed that the actions of armed Islamists in Mali were the result of "deep ignorance of the teachings of religion". He urged militants to repent to God by renouncing armed action and releasing Western and Algerian hostages.

Algeria recently hosted several religious scholars, who issued fatwas about the illegitimacy of jihad in Muslim countries. The initiative from Mecca, however, was the first time for sheikhs from multiple countries to make a joint appeal to armed groups to lay down their weapons.

The religious figures pointed to the "false jihad" slogan used by the militants in Mali, saying that it was a pretext to commit crimes and assaults on innocent people.

The Eid address by the Islamic scholars comes at a critical time for Sahel-Saharan stability.

While the world is planning how to oust terrorists from northern Mali, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) are resorting to threats against African and Western countries.

The strategy highlights their desperation to prevent intervention in Mali, observers suggest.

"These groups realise quite well that threats of terrorist acts against the interests of regional countries are no longer effective. Therefore, it resorted to the card available to it, which is hostages," writer and analyst Bechir Ould Babana said.

MUJAO is demanding the "release of 20 Algerian, Moroccan and Mauritanian detainees in exchange for the Algerian diplomats kidnapped last April from the Algerian consulate in Gao", El Khabar reported on October 23rd.

Algerian diplomat Taher Touati was executed by the terrorist group last September.

"Algeria's position is difficult in this case, as it is keen on preserving the lives of hostages taken by MUJAO. At the same time, it categorically rejects any swap of prisoners or the payment of ransom to armed groups," Atef Qadadrah, an Algerian journalist and expert in Sahel security, told Magharebia.

"It is largely betting on the role that some Touareg leaders and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) can play in this regard. This is in addition to the appeal by the sheikhs for terrorist groups to release the hostages," Qadadrah added.

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