- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - A U.N. driver kidnapped with two Canadian diplomats in Niger has been released unharmed after several governments and people in the region intervened, U.N. officials said Monday.

The two diplomats, including the U.N. special envoy for Niger, are still being held after their abduction in December.

Al-Qaida’s North Africa branch, an Algeria-based group, has claimed it is holding the two Canadians, along with four tourists _ two Swiss citizens, a German woman and a British man _ who were kidnapped in January in the desert near the border in neighboring Mali.

Soumana Mounkaila, who is employed by the U.N. Development Program, was released in Mali’s capital, Bamako, over the weekend and has been recounting his experiences in talks with U.N. officials.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement Monday praising the cooperation of local governments and individuals whose negotiations helped Mounkaila gain his freedom.

Ban again called on the kidnappers to free the two remaining U.N. hostages: Ban’s U.N. special envoy for Niger, Robert Fowler, and Fowler’s aide, Louis Guay.

Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa has not issued demands for the hostages’ release. But in past kidnappings in the Sahara, the world’s largest desert, it has obtained ransoms for Western tourists.

Niger President Mamadou Tandja has blamed Fowler’s abduction on a rebel group from the northern Niger ethnic minority of Tuareg nomads who are battling the government.

Tuareg rebels from the Front For Forces of Redress retracted their initial statement claiming responsibility for the kidnapping, saying their Web site had been hacked. But some Western intelligence officials believe the Tuaregs may have traded the hostages to Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa.

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