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Mauritania: Malian linked to Italian kidnap arrested - sources

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NOUAKCHOTT, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Mauritanian security forces have arrested a Malian suspected of involvement in the kidnapping of an Italian couple near the Mali-Mauritania border, security sources said on Tuesday.

Abderrahmane Ben Meddou, who was arrested in Mauritania's eastern town of Kobenni on Monday, is suspected of having helped identify and follow the Italian couple in return for promises of thousands of dollars, Mauritania's news agency reported.

The kidnapping is the latest in a string of seizures of foreigners by armed groups in West Africa, some of whom have links with al Qaeda's North African wing, AQIM.

"He was arrested in Kobenni by the gendarmes," a security source told Reuters, referring to the eastern Mauritanian town near to where the Italian couple's bullet-riddled car was found abandoned on Saturday.

The Malian is currently being questioned by the authorities in the capital, Nouakchott, the security sources added.

No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping but Italy said it is using all its political and diplomatic channels to try to secure the release of the couple.

Citing intelligence sources, Mauritania's AMI news agency said Ben Meddou has told officials that he had found and followed potential hostages in return for a promise of 10 million CFA francs ($21,810) at the end of the operation.

It was not immediately clear who Ben Meddou was working for but local media reports suggested the Italians, and three Spaniards taken last month in Mauritania, were kidnapped on the orders of various factions of AQIM.

Analysts and diplomats suspect the Italian couple have been taken into Mali's remote north, where other foreigners, including the Spaniards and a Frenchman al Qaeda says it is also holding, are believed to be.

Rather than carrying out kidnappings themselves, Islamists in the region are believed to rely on local gangs, generally involved in the smuggling of cigarettes, weapons, drugs and people, to seize foreigners who are then passed on to them.

Although never officially confirmed, experts say ransoms are often paid, but a British hostage was executed in Mali by the group earlier this year.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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