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Burkina leader proves worthy hostage negotiator

Compaore took power in a 1987 coup that saw his predecessor assassinated (© 2009 AFP)

Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore has carved out an unlikely niche as the Sahel region’s troubleshooter, most recently securing the release of a Swiss woman kidnapped in Mali.

On Tuesday, a Burkinabe helicopter swept into rebel-held northern Mali, carrying Compaore’s army chief of staff Gilbert Djindjere, and collected Beatrice Stockly, a Swiss woman kidnapped outside Timbuktu on April 15.

Compaore and his aides had already negotiated the transfer with Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine, which did not initially kidnap Stockly, but took custody of her following a shootout with her original captors.

Once Stockly was safe, the Swiss government promptly thanked the Burkinabe authorities for their efforts.

Northern Mali is currently controlled by a disparate group of Tuaregs and Islamist rebels.

Among those active in the volatile region is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which claimed the kidnapping of Italian national Maria Sandra Mariani 14 months ago in Algeria.

She was released on April 17, in Burkina Faso, and while Compaore’s personal role in that exchange is not clear, his mediation was thought to have been crucial.

“Very early on, President Compaore organised a network to be informed about what happens in the Sahel-Sahara region. When you know the people, it’s easier to negotiate,” a Burkinabe security source told AFP.

Ansar Dine, which now controls much of northern Mali, is a relatively obscure group that recently showed its propensity to switch allegiances.

In negotiating Stockly’s release from the Islamists, Compaore proved he’s in tune with the shifting realities on the ground, observers said.

“We have in Compaore a serious intermediary with a serious network,” said one western diplomat.

Following his recent successes, foreign governments are leaning on Ouagadougou to help secure the release of the 12 Westerns still being held in the Sahel.

“France has recently asked friendly countries like Burkina Faso and Mali to increase measures to obtain the release of its citizens kidnapped in the Sahel,” a Malian who has previously been involved in such talks told AFP.

Compaore is perhaps an unlikely fit for this partly benevolent role: he took power in a 1987 coup that saw his predecessor and once brother-in-arms Thomas Sankara assassinated, and his democratic credentials have been steadily questioned since.

But his skills at navigating among the sometimes shadowy armed groups operating in the Sahel were reinforced last month when fellow heads of state from the west African bloc ECOWAS named him mediator for the Mali crisis.

“We know the men” operating in northern Mali, said a high-ranking Burkinabe source, “but it’s not easy” to negotiate with different groups who don’t share the same objectives.

The key to Ouagadougou’s mediation in Mali and elsewhere, said this source, is a willingness to hear all sides.

“It will be for us to first listen to (the groups) individually and at a given moment we’ll have to bring them together to talk.”

Signature : Romaric Ollo Hien OUAGADOUGOU (AFP)

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