Mali lawmaker tells of threats over al-Qaida talk

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) ? A Malian lawmaker who has been outspoken about his country’s alleged role in providing refuge to an offshoot of the al-Qaida terror network says he was stopped in traffic Sunday in the capital by armed men who warned him to stop talking about the matter.

Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, a member of parliament from the Bourem region in the north of Mali, where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is known to operate, says he was stopped at around 11 a.m. in Bamako by four men in a black Mercedes.

“They presented themselves as agents of the Malian intelligence service. I could see they had automatic pistols concealed under their clothes,” Assaleh told The Associated Press by telephone just hours after the incident.

“The men told me I should stop speaking about the links between the Malian state and the drugs trade, and the Malian state and AQIM,” Assaleh said.

Assaleh said he has since checked with the head of the Malian intelligence service, who said the men were not working for him.

The lawmaker is among the most outspoken members of Mali’s government about the problem of AQIM, a terror outfit that grew out of the groups fighting the Algeria’s secular government in the 1990s. The groups merged with al-Qaida in 2006, and were pushed into Mali where they were able to install themselves with little resistance from local authorities.

AQIM militants have raised millions of dollars by kidnapping dozens of European aid workers and tourists, nearly all of whom were abducted in the countries neighboring Mali, then transported to Mali where they’ve been held until a ransom is secured.

Diplomatic cables made available by WikiLeaks indicate frustration in the diplomatic community with Mali’s inaction.

Among the sources quoted in the cables is Assaleh, who acted as a hostage negotiator when an Austrian couple was kidnapped by AQIM. Another is the Algerian ambassador in Bamako who told his American counterpart, according to a February 2010 cable, that Mali is “willfully complicit” in the presence of AQIM on its soil.

Mali’s government has denied the charge and says that the country needs external assistance to patrol its 4,000-mile (7,000-kilometer) long border.

The U.S. military has begun training Malian troops in counterterrorism tactics, but the effort has yet to bear fruit and as recently as last week, a group of European aid workers grabbed in southern Algeria were later reported to have been seen by residents in northern Mali.

Assaleh said that in addition to AQIM, the men told him to cease his contact with the new government in Libya.

An ethnic Tuareg, Assaleh has been part of the so-called Tuareg Contact Group which has been lobbying for Tuareg interests in the new Libya. In recent days, Assaleh has been quoted by international media outlets about reports that the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s chief of intelligence sought refuge in the Kidal region of Mali.

Assaleh said he had no idea who the men were, but he has no intention of giving in to the intimidation. “They told me to stop talking or they would take the necessary measures. I told them they might as well do whatever they have planned because there is no way I am going to stop,” Assaleh said.