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Africa

Jon Marks: 'Mali conflict has a long way to go.'

Algerian troops have launched air and ground assaults on a gas complex where at least 30 hostages were kept by Islamists.

Dozens of foreign hostages are believed to have escaped but others were reported killed, when Algerian military forces launched an operation to free them at a remote desert gas field near Amenas. Militants attacked the Ain Amenas gas complex about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of Algerian capital Algiers on Wednesday, taking dozens of foreign workers hostage. The mastermind behind the hostage taking was Mokhtar Belmokhtar linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb (AQIM).

DW: Jon Marks, what is AQIM movement and the ideology behind its formation?

Jon Marks: Well you know AQIM is a movement that has been in existence for a very long time. You can trace its roots back to the rise of the Algerian islamic radicalism in the 1980’s, and indeed to radical Islamists who went to fight in Afghanistan during that period. Mokthar Belmokthar who’s been in the public eye over events in Amenas in Algeria, comes out of that tradition. So during the conflict in the 1990’s between the radical Islamists in the Algerian state, certainly the best organized radical group called the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), and a decade on from that struggle, the group rebranded itself under the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb banner. It doesn’t mean they were taking direct order from Osama Bin Laden, but they were certainly aligned themselves to that tradition.

What do we know about this particular group of militants that took workers of the gas facility hostage?

Clearly these militants work in the underground and at the moment little is known about them. But it does seem that they are led by Mokthar Belmokthar who is a legendary Islamist fighter and well known for his networks in the Sahel region. His group has been involved in a number of kidnappings and other criminal activities. He has also made alliances with other groups that are active in northern Mali.

Militant groups have vowed to avenge the intervention, where French forces have been battling Islamists linked to AQIM for the past week, is the situation bound to escalate?

Well, at the moment we certainly have an escalation, not only because of the Malian crisis that has come into Algeria, but also because of the number of the hostages involved. The kidnappings have really raised the profile of the whole conflict. After all we are now number one in the global agenda, which wasn’t the case before. But the critical question is the degree to which western governments are going to actually want to commit more. Already we've seen the French intervention in Mali in a very difficult situation, while other governments are stepping back. Everyone formally supported the intervention but very few people want to do anything than offering logistical support.

The militants have issued a list of demands including an end to the French military intervention against the Islamist rebels in Mali, do you see any of these demands being met?

No, I think it's going to be very difficult. Firstly, I think the standoff in Amenas is going to be handled by the Algerian military. You know the strength of Algerian feeling of national sovereignty and indeed the sanctity of their own forces, I think they will be very reluctant to let anyone else to be actively involved in the matter.

John Marks is the Chairman of the UK based think thank, Cross Border Information (CBI).

Interview: Isaac Mugabi

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