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The Story Behind the Western Sahara Kidnappings

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Sometimes it takes the world a little while to catch on.

Like John the Baptist, many of us working on the issue of refugees in southern Algeria felt like lone voices in the wilderness when calling attention to the dangers and threats facing the people imprisoned in "refugee" camps in and near Tindouf, Algeria.

We warned of the dangers posed against the Sahrawi people forced to live in the camps by Polisario and Algerian authorities; we cried out with concern about the status of humanitarian aid, often stolen and sold for profit by Polisario leaders, and for the workers who deliver it; we documented the curious relationships between the Polisario Front and AQIM that threatened the lives and safety of both refugees and aid workers in the region; we called for a political solution to the Sahara crisis that would grant the refugees security, democracy, development and liberty instead of the repression, danger and iniquity they face today.

Instead of listening, the international community maintained its policy of status quo, continued to wear blinders to rising security concerns of AQIM and its relationship with Polisario leaders, and ignored the needs and fears of a population denied access to basic amenities let alone its homeland for over 30 years.

That is, the international community continued its ignorance and blindness to the suffering and dangers in the Sahara until Oct. 23, when Spaniards Ainhoa Fernandez de Rincon and Enric Gonyalons and Italian Rosella Urru were kidnapped from a protocol house in the small Algerian town of Rabouni, home to the headquarters of the Polisario Front and near an Algerian military base.

Spanish media -- citing Spanish aid organization colleagues of the two Spaniards kidnapped -- said shots were fired during the kidnapping and that at least one of the three captives may have been injured.

The Polisario Front, quick to deflect any responsibility directly or indirectly for the kidnappings, announced that it was the work of al Qaeda in the Maghreb, despite AQIM to this date not having claimed responsibility for the acts. In a statement, the Polisario said the armed attackers had arrived at the camp in four-wheel drive vehicles and left in the direction of neighboring Mali "from where they came."

Again, like John the Baptist, we did not accept what we knew were untruths. Those of us who have called to light the situation in the camps and the dangers faced by the people there have been met with persecution and opposition. Polisario leaders, their Algerian caretakers and other international supporters regularly balked at the notion that the people in the camps faced any dangers, threats or security concerns, from al Qaeda or anyone else. And for the first time, we were not alone.

Claims by Polisario leaders and their supporters that "Sahrawi refugee camps have been safe from any kind of security problems for the last three decades," however, do not coincide with the evidence presented by numerous activists, academics, experts and policymakers warning of the rising dangers to the refugees locked in the camps.

But for the very first time, our voices were not only starting to be heard, but people began actually to listen and to question.

Several prominent Italian and Spanish newspapers have started raising questions about relations between AQIM and the Polisario and wondering out loud if the Polisario didn't help AQIM in the abductions.

La Nuova Sardegna, El Pais and enPrimicia confirmed that the kidnappers received help and support from within the "well-guarded Polisario-run camps."

El Pais went even further stating that, "to cross the checkpoints of the Algerian Army and the Polisario, the kidnappers benefited from the support of Polisario's military."

It is not just the media that is beginning to ask questions. Some of the Polisario's closest political supporters -- historically Algeria, Spain and Muammar Qaddafi's Libya -- are now calling into question the security situation in and near the camps.

As reported by Al Arabiya News, "Spain appeared to have switched gear on its long-time policy regarding the Western Sahara conflict when it called Tuesday for a U.N. committee to evaluate the security situation in the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Tindouf and probe possible corruption in the distribution of international aid there."

Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez told reporters, "We have asked the United Nations to send a mission to Algeria to assess the security situation in the camps of Tindouf."

Such a change of position on the part of Spain is indicative of the growing distrust of Polisario and Algerian claims of security in the region around the camps.

Even the United Nations Department of Safety and Security released a Communiqué on Oct. 25 informing "All Security Focal Points" and others about the abductions. According to the Communiqué:

The Designated Official for Western Sahara has upgraded the security level from Three to Four... and decided to suspend all Night Observation Posts and Night Ground Patrols East of the Berm until further notice and the following:
Maintain a daily UN curfew from dusk till dawn until further notice;
Ensure that all security and safety procedures are implemented and in place, including access control and ensuring the closing of gates when not in use;
Maintain regular radio checks every hour while conducting day patrols according to standard operating procedures...

The lone voice in the wilderness calling out to protect the Sahrawi refugees is now being heard. Unfortunately, it was after three innocent aid workers were taken captive under dubious circumstances with suspicious support.

However, while Spain, the United Nations, the media and others are beginning to hear the voice and ask questions about security in the camps, the one voice that has been oddly silent in all this has been Algeria.

Despite the camps being on their sovereign territory, despite the thousands of refugees in the camps for over 30 years within their borders, despite an Algerian military base only a short distance from Rabouni, Algeria has been absolutely silent and below the radar in the aftermath of the kidnappings.

While Polisario representatives have been the pointpersons responding to media, government, and nongovernmental organization inquests about the abductions, the Polisario is not the sovereign of this region. Algeria is.

While no one can claim that Algerian agents were responsible for the kidnappings, the Government of Algeria must take responsibility for the fact that operatives were able to enter Algerian sovereign territory, so close to an Algerian military base, and kidnap three foreign nationals.

For over 30 years, Sahrawi refugees have been trapped in camps within Algerian sovereign territory. Under international law, Algeria has a legal duty and moral responsibility to care for the people there, to provide them with aid and assistance, or to find ways to assimilate the population into larger Algerian society.

Algeria must now acknowledge that the safety and security of the Tindouf region is not what they and the Polisario have historically claimed it to be. Instead, after such an audacious act as the abductions, the Algerian Government must take responsibility for the people in the camps, agree to a political solution to the Western Sahara conflict and guarantee that the refugees in the camps in Tindouf no longer face the threat of kidnapping or worse.

Furthermore, if the Spanish and Italian press reports of the collusion between the Polisario and AQIM in the kidnappings are true, it is impingent on Algeria as a member of the community of civilized nations to regain its control over the Polisario, exert its influence over the Polisario to release the kidnapped aid workers, and by whatever means necessary to dismantle the relationship between the Polisario and AQIM that threatens both Algeria, the refugees, the international aid workers who visit the region, and North Africa as a whole.

Algeria can no longer ignore invitations to participate in the UN-sponsored negotiations over the Western Sahara. Algeria can no longer pretend that it has no vital interest in or responsibility for the outcome of the Western Sahara situation. Abductions of foreign nationals from their sovereign territory make Algeria a partner in the discussion, whether Algeria wishes it or not.

Sometimes it takes the world a little while to catch on, but now that is has started to listen, the world is waiting to hear from Algeria.