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Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler, right, UN special envoy to Niger, and his assistant Louis Guay are pictured as they meet with Mali President Amadou Toumani after they were released along with two European tourists by al-Qaeda-linked captors after months as hostages, in Bamako on April 23, 2009.HABIB KOUYATE

Four terrorists, including a bomb-maker, were released from prison in the African nation of Mali in exchange for the freedom this year of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, high-ranking government sources in Mali have confirmed.

The released prisoners were members of al-Qaeda's increasingly powerful branch in the Sahara region of northern and western Africa. Two of them had been arrested in the northern Mali desert town of Gao last year after an accidental explosion while they were manufacturing a bomb, the sources say.

The prisoner release, which the Canadian government maintains it played no part in, was confirmed by government sources in Mali and by a local intermediary who was intimately involved in negotiations to free the Canadian hostages from the Sahara terrorist group, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The group, formed in 2006 after a merger between al-Qaeda and an Algerian-based terrorist group, seeks to expel Westerners and set up an Islamic theocracy in Africa.

Several sources said three of the released prisoners were Mauritanian members of AQIM, which has members from across West Africa and North Africa. One of the prisoners, known as Sidi, was a "chemist," a bomb-maker, who was involved in last year's explosion. A second prisoner, known as Tayoub, was a logistics expert who was caught after the same explosion.

A fourth prisoner, Mohamed, was in the process of being released, but was killed in a car accident during the transfer.

In addition to the prisoner release, Malian sources support earlier reports that several million dollars in cash was given to the kidnappers, although the exact origins of the money remain unclear.

Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay, kidnapped in Niger last December, were taken across the border to Mali and held in captivity for 130 days in a remote corner of the Sahara desert. They were the focus of a massive Canadian effort to free them.

Mr. Fowler had been one of the most powerful bureaucrats in Ottawa, where he served as deputy defence minister and as a senior prime ministerial adviser. He was also Canada's longest-serving United Nations ambassador. In July, 2008, he took an unannounced assignment as a special UN envoy to mediate between the Niger government and a rebel movement. Mr. Guay, his aide in the Niger mission, is a former Canadian ambassador to Gabon.

Speaking in detail for the first time about the circumstances that led to the diplomats' release, Mali officials said they felt under heavy pressure to find ways to resolve the hostage situation, to the point they were worried that Canada might withdraw aid if the hostages were not freed.

Canada's aid to Mali has increased sharply in recent years, from about $20-million in 2002 to more than $100-million last year. Mali is now one of the five biggest recipients of Canadian aid, and it is one of the few African countries to remain on Ottawa's trimmed-down priority list for foreign aid this year.

Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, director of the Northern Mali Development Agency in the Mali government, said the four prisoners were released because Canada is a "big partner" of the country and needed to be kept happy. The prisoners who were involved in bomb-making were "very dangerous" but "not very well-known," he said in an interview.

"Maybe releasing … prisoners won't make such a big difference," he said. "Sometimes, with an enemy, a prisoner exchange takes place."

Shortly after the two Canadians were freed on April 21, Algerian news reports suggested that terrorist prisoners were released in exchange for the hostages. A statement by al-Qaeda claimed that four of its fighters were freed from prison as part of the hostage deal. But until now, the prisoner swap has never been confirmed by government officials.

The deal paved the way for the release of Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay, as well as two European tourists who had been kidnapped by the same terrorist group in January. A third tourist was later released, while the fourth tourist – a British man – was killed by the kidnappers in May.

Sources say that the British government complained to Canada about its willingness to let Mali negotiate with the kidnappers, arguing that Ottawa had "betrayed international convention."

The informal complaint, which was made below prime ministerial level, came after Mr. Fowler's release and before the death of the British hostage, Edwin Dyer. It was a terse criticism. "The job of releasing Mr. Dyer was made more difficult," said a source. "There was considerable anger."

The hostage takers had demanded the British government release Abu Qatada, a Jordanian being held in jail in Britain. London refused, and Mr. Dyer was killed.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has denied that his government made any concessions, he would not discuss whether other governments might have offered considerations to the kidnappers on behalf of Canada.

"The government of Canada does not pay ransom or money, the government of Canada does not release prisoners," he told a news conference in April after the release of the two Canadian hostages. "What efforts or initiatives may have been undertaken by other governments are questions you'll have to put to those governments."

Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga, a former Malian defence minister and former head of its secret services, said two of the prisoners who were exchanged for the Canadians included a bomb-maker and an expert in logistics and military tactics for AQIM. They were handed over to AQIM in the far north of the country, near the Algerian border, while a third prisoner was released near the border of Mauritania, he said.

Mr. Maiga confirmed that cash was given to the kidnappers. "The problem is that the ransom gives financial resources to al-Qaeda, allowing them to acquire more equipment and more capacity to engage in terrorism," he said.

A hostage negotiator, a key figure in the final deal, said the three released prisoners were Mauritanian members of AQIM, which has members from across West Africa and North Africa.

The negotiator said he was recruited by Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure. "The president was almost crying. He really wanted to find a solution. He liberated the prisoners to please Canada."

Another northern Mali leader, a member of parliament, said he is certain that the government released al-Qaeda prisoners in exchange for the Canadian hostages. He said the prisoner release triggered a bitter reaction from Mali's northern neighbour, Algeria, which has been fighting the same terrorist group for years.

"The Algerians were angry," he said. "The Algerians have openly said to me that they were upset about this."

And Mr. Fowler himself has acknowledged that concessions were given to his captors in exchange for his release.

"I mean, they got something. I don't know from whom or how," Mr. Fowler told CBC television in an interview last month.

With a report by Colin Freeze in Toronto


July 2008: Robert Fowler is appointed special UN envoy to Niger, with a mandate to explore ways to bring peace to the country. It is a hush-hush mission; not even the UN Security Council is informed.

Fall: He holds several meetings with government leaders and civil-society groups in Niamey, Niger's capital, and meets some of the country's rebel leaders in Europe.

Dec. 14: Mr. Fowler and his aide, Louis Guay, along with their driver, are taken at gunpoint while driving on a main road about 40 kilometres northwest of Naimey.

Feb. 4, 2009: UN spokesman Farhan Haq says the United Nations is working on the belief that its missing Canadian diplomats are still alive, but it has had no contact from anyone claiming to have abducted them.

Feb. 7: Malian sources claim to have seen a video showing Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay alive. "It is Robert Fowler who appears first before the camera," the source says. "Behind him there are armed men. Mr. Fowler asks for a response to the demands of his kidnappers, but doesn't provide any more details." The description is reminiscent of al-Qaeda tapes.

Feb. 18: Al-Qaeda's North African branch claims it is holding two missing Canadian diplomats hostage. The statement's authenticity can not be independently verified, but it is confirmed by the SITE intelligence group, a U.S.-based organization that monitors militant messages. AQMI, an Algeria-based militant group that joined Osama bin Laden's terrorist network in 2006, conducts dozens of bombings or ambushes each month.

April 22: It is announced that the two diplomats have been freed by Islamic militants claiming ties to al-Qaeda. Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Ottawa paid no ransom and exchanged no prisoners for their release.

Sept. 7: Mr. Fowler says in an interview with the CBC that he believes someone in the government of Niger or possibly with the UN betrayed him to al-Qaeda.