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Islamists want 30 mln euros to free Western hostages: source

By AFP

GAO, Mali (AFP) - An Al-Qaeda splinter group wants 30 million euros ($39 million) to free three European aid workers kidnapped in Algeria in October, a Malian source close to the mediators said on Saturday.

"The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa is demanding 30 million euros to free two Spanish nationals and the Italian woman," the source said.

The kidnapping of two Spanish nationals and an Italian woman was staged in Tindouf, western Algeria, in a refugee camp run by the Polisario Front which seeks Western Sahara's independence from Morocco.

The Front had initially blamed the kidnapping on Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

But on December 12, a video showing armed men flanking two women -- one Spanish and the other Italian -- and a Spanish man was made public by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.

The splinter group is lead by Malians and Mauritanians, according to experts.

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo was on Saturday returning from the Malian capital Bamako after talks with Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure and other officials about the hostage issue, his office said.

Security sources say the Movement for Oneness had broken off from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in order to spread jihad to west Africa and not confine themselves to the north African Maghreb or Sahel regions.

The group also released another video showing six dark-skinned, turban-wearing men speaking of their ideological references, including Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar but putting more emphasis on historical figures of west African Islam.

The group on Saturday claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a police base in southern Algeria which left 23 people wounded according to the paramilitary gendarmerie. One of them was in serious condition.