A Canadian nun and two Italian priests were freed Sunday after nearly two months in captivity at the hands of suspected Boko Haram gunmen. The news was celebrated around the world, but while the release answered the question of whether the trio would ever enjoy their freedom again, it raised another: How did their liberation come to be?
The Canadian and Italian governments were quick to thank one another for their assistance, but neither provided details about how 74-year-old Quebec nun Gilberte Bussière and the Italian clergymen were released in the darkness of night from the apparent grasp of a radical Islamist group behind the high-profile kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls.
Citing an anonymous military source, news agency Agence France-Presse reported Sunday the three hostages, abducted in early April from a northern Cameroon parish near the border with Nigeria, were released "as part of a prisoner exchange with a fee being paid." The report didn't identify who financed the purported ransom.
Asked about the AFP report and, specifically, whether Ottawa was involved in paying a ransom or was aware if one was paid, Foreign Affairs spokesman Jean-Bruno Villeneuve said this: "Canada's policy is clear. We do not pay ransoms."
Mr. Villeneuve said the government won't comment on efforts to secure Ms. Bussière's release, though he did say officials have been in regular contact with her family "to provide assistance and to provide consular support to the Canadian citizen." The Italian government, meantime, released a brief statement thanking the Cameroonian authorities and the "Government of Canada, with whom we have worked closely."
The freeing of the three hostages, along with Saturday's release of a U.S. prisoner of the Afghanistan war in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees, highlights the murky business of brokering deals in international kidnappings. Ransoms, of course, would only spur more abductions and finance terrorist groups, so Western governments have an interest in not being tied to payments possibly arranged by intermediaries.
Wesley Wark, one of Canada's leading terrorism experts, said Sunday's release, on its surface, reminds him of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, who were suddenly liberated in 2009 after five months of captivity while on a U.N. mission to Niger. The Conservative government has denied paying a ransom to free the two men, but U.S. officials in West Africa were apparently under a very different impression: According to leaked U.S. State Department cables, American envoys believed Ottawa broke rank with its allies and acceded to terrorists' demands for payment in exchange for the hostages.
Although he's not suggesting the Canadian government paid a ransom in Ms. Bussière's case, Mr. Wark said in some circumstances a payment is the only solution. "When governments find themselves in those circumstances, they like to be able to reach to a doctrine of a plausible deniability," he said.
Western governments have for years pressured one another not to pay ransoms, with the U.N. Security Council in January reiterating its plea for countries to stop trading cash for hostages. The British U.N. ambassador at the time estimated that in the previous three-and-a-half years, al Qaeda-affiliated and other Islamist extremist groups had collected at least $105-million.
NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar, whose party agrees that the Canadian government shouldn't pay ransoms, said he was briefed about two weeks ago on the Bussière case. Though Foreign Affairs officials didn't detail efforts to secure the woman's release, Mr. Dewar said he was left with the impression that Ottawa was engaged with people on the ground and was working with the Italian and Cameroonian governments.
Tim Crockett, the head of Pioneer Consulting Group, an American security firm specializing in kidnap and ransom consulting, said it's impossible to ascertain what prompted Sunday's release, but said whenever a ransom is paid, the broker has to go through a "song and dance."
"If you pay too much too early, then [the kidnappers] might think they can get more," said Mr. Crockett, a former British military officer who has worked on six international kidnapping cases. "So they'll keep the person and double-dip or take another person from the same organization."
Ms. Bussière's cousin, Michel Belanger, said the family was relieved after weeks of worry, sparked in part by concerns she would suffer without access to her medication. "We were almost expecting the worst," he said Sunday. "But now, everything has changed. Everything is fine, so we're very happy."
With a report from Reuters and The Canadian Press