Mali: German killed; Dutch, SAfrican, Swede seized

November 26, 2011 - 11:05 AM

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Gunmen killed a German man in Mali's most famous city of Timbuktu and seized three men from the Netherlands, South Africa and Sweden, officials and witnesses said, as officials on Saturday ordered a plane to evacuate foreigners from the tourist destination.

The Dutch and Swedish governments confirmed Saturday that their citizens had been taken. A fellow traveler said the other man seized was South African and said she met the German man.

Tour guide Ali Maiga was with the tourists during Friday's attack at a Timbuktu restaurant and gave the same list of nationalities. A witness and an official said gunmen burst into the restaurant, grabbed four tourists dining there and executed one when he refused to climb into their truck.

Officials on Saturday evacuated foreigners from Timbuktu to the capital, said a man who owns a hotel in Bamako where the tourists previously stayed. He asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ward Bezemer confirmed that one Dutch man was among those kidnapped.

"In the interests of the people involved, we never comment on these cases," Bezemer told The Associated Press.

The kidnapping comes ahead of an official visit by Mali's president to the Netherlands next week.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on Saturday confirmed on Twitter that one of those kidnapped was Swedish. He did not mention the nationalities of the others.

South African foreign affairs department spokesman Clayson Monyela said Saturday his government was trying to confirm whether one of those kidnapped was South African.

Canadian tourist Julie-Ann Leblond said she met a group consisting of a South African, a Swede and a Dutch couple in Mali. She said they invited her to join them as they headed to Timbuktu, but she took ill on Wednesday and had to stay behind.

"I was supposed to go there with them," Leblond, a 25-year-old resident of Quebec City, told the Associated Press by phone from Bamako. "I was never so happy to get a cold."

She did not provide the names of the travelers and said the German was traveling separately. She said the group of four met on the road as they were traveling from Europe to Africa.

"They're incredible people, so peaceful, so nice," she said. "That kind of thing cannot just happen to those kind of people. It's crazy."

Until a few years ago, Timbuktu was one of the most visited destinations in Africa, but it is now one of the many former tourist hotspots in Mali that have been deemed too dangerous to visit by foreign embassies because of kidnappings by the local chapter of al-Qaida.

Friday's incident comes after two French citizens were grabbed in the middle of the night from their hotel in the Malian town of Hombori on Thursday. French judicial officials have opened a preliminary investigation into their kidnappings.

Neither kidnapping has yet been claimed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, whose members have kidnapped and ransomed more than 50 Europeans and Canadians since 2003.

If Friday's kidnapping is by AQIM, it will mark the first time they have taken a hostage inside of Timbuktu's city limits. Thursday's kidnapping would be another first — the first hostage taking south of the Niger River.

The group's footprint has grown dramatically since 2006, when the Algerian-led cell first joined al-Qaida. Security experts estimate the group has been able to raise around $130 million from ransom payments alone.

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Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed to this report from The Hague; writers Anita Powell and Donna Bryson contributed from Johannesburg.