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Former al-Qaeda hostage Robert Fowler was freed in April.

Canada wants to bring the al-Qaeda militants accused of kidnapping Robert Fowler and Louis Guay out of Africa and into Canadian courts.

The test case would showcase the long arm of Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act.

RCMP officers were among dozens of federal agents sent to Africa last spring in hopes of facilitating a rescue of the two Canadian hostages, and still hope to lay charges over the abduction of the Canadian diplomat and his aide.

With their sudden and unexpected release, Canada is now moving into a new phase with reports Ottawa is hoping to charge Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and militants associated with him with kidnapping and being members of a terrorist organization.

In an interview broadcast last night on national TV, Mr. Fowler said he dealt directly with Mr. Belmokhtar, an Algerian fugitive whom global intelligence agencies have dubbed "the uncatchable."

"We drove 19 hours to the biggest damn sand dune you have ever seen ... Along the razorback dune are standing six of us with Belmokhtar, you know, the king of al-Qaeda in the Southern Sahara," Mr. Fowler, a veteran diplomat, told the CBC.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon travelled to Africa late last month to meet Mali's President, Amadou Toumani Touré, who is frequently credited with being extraordinarily helpful to Western governments during AQIM hostage takings.

Mr. Belmokhtar is often described as a one-eyed smuggler, gunrunner, and kidnapper who shuttles from hideaway to hideaway in the Sahara desert.

Last week, regional reports suggested that six militants associated with his group, some of them directly involved in the diplomats' kidnapping, were arrested in Algeria.

They asked to be included in an amnesty Algeria is offering to militants - but not to their leader, Mr. Belmokhtar, who remains at large somewhere in the desert straddling Algeria, Mali and Niger.

After several hostage crises, Western countries are redoubling efforts to lend aid, expertise, and military materiel to help African countries battle AQIM.

The terrorist group has grown from an Algerian insurgent group into a full-fledged regional threat spilling over into Mali, Niger and Mauritania.

During his recent trip to Africa, Mr. Cannon praised Mali for its efforts to fight terrorism.

"I am extremely pleased to be able to attest to the President's deep commitment to confront security issues that affect Mali and the whole region," he said in a statement.

It's unclear what international agreements Canada could use to get custody of AQIM suspects. But even laying charges, would be a significant symbolic gesture.

A decade ago, Canada had no federal anti-terrorism laws to speak of, a state of affairs that police say made it difficult to arrest even known terror suspects inside the country.

Then, Parliament passed the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

And last year, an al-Qaeda sympathizer from Ottawa was the first man convicted under the law.

Momin Khawaja was prosecuted not merely for crimes in Canada, but also for acts in Pakistan and the United Kingdom - thus establishing the law's extraterritorial reach.

That means that terrorists caught anywhere in the world could theoretically be brought to justice in Canadian courts.

Yet police are refusing comment on any international terrorism probes.

"The RCMP is not in a position to confirm or deny whether there is an investigation that's ongoing," Sergeant Julie Gagnon said yesterday.

Mr. Belmokhtar, 37, is a committed jihadist who travelled to Afghanistan as a teenager. He returned to his native Algeria in the early 1990s to join Islamist insurgents.

Along the way, he formed a splinter AQIM group known as the Masked Battalion.

United Nations resolutions enacted last year require countries to freeze his assets and ban his travels.

El-Khabar - the Algerian newspaper that broke the news of the Fowler-Guay release last spring based on information from security sources - reported last month that Western countries "including Switzerland, Canada, Britain and America are working on the prosecution of terrorists of Algerian and Mauritanian nationalities" associated with the Masked Battalion.

"Well-informed sources said that Canada, the country of the UN envoy, Robert Fowler ... is going to file charges of kidnapping and affiliation to an international terrorist organization, against the Mr. Belmokhtar," the newspaper said.

U.S. authorities are also said to be contemplating air or rocket attacks against AQIM redoubts in Mali, while British authorities are angling for the prosecution of AQIM member Hamadou Habid, whom they hold responsible for the murder of British hostage Edwin Dyer, beheaded after the Canadians' release.

Before this round of kidnappings, Mr. Belmokhtar was allegedly involved in the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists, which netted the terrorist millions in ransom payments.