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Gadhafi regime helped broker release of Canadian envoys, records show

Canadians Louis Guay, left, and Robert Fowler are shown here after thy were released by al-Qaeda-linked captors in 2009. Records show that Libya had a hand in securing their release.

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Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's regime helped crack the case of the captive Canadian diplomats in the Sahara, according to newly released government records. The Conservative government was so grateful for the help that it had one of its ministers personally deliver Ottawa's thanks.

Today, Canadian Forces warplanes are part of a NATO-led effort to help rebels defeat Col. Gadhafi in Libya, but two years ago bilateral relations were relatively more cordial.

"Thank [Foreign Minister Musa]Kousa for Libya's efforts to obtain the release of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay," then foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon was told to say ahead of a 2009 meeting in Libya with his counterpart.

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The message, as rendered on a briefing note, reminded Mr. Cannon that Tripoli had just put "its extensive intelligence networks and links to many tribal groups and governments" to work for Canada.

The notes, partly censored when released under the Access to Information Act, do not go into much detail beyond saying that Mr. Kousa was "well aware" of the case.

His past work as head of the dictatorship's spy service had given Mr. Kousa a familiarity with the file – and a nickname of Envoy of Death. Libya's new government said this week it discovered a mass grave filled with the remains of 1,200 massacred prisoners.

Though long regarded as an international pariah and state sponsor of terrorism, the Gadhafi government was frequently prevailed upon to do something few of its neighbours would contemplate: broker ransom-for-hostage deals between Western governments and kidnapping networks hiding in the Sahara Desert.

The Globe and Mail reported Saturday that the U.S. Ambassador to Mali complained that Canada had jeopardized West African security by paying a ransom into such a deal. The Canadian captives were released after being held for 130-days. After that, "an enormous influx of cash" was observed to have made its way into the hands of tribal interlocutors in a remote village.

Those disclosures appear in leaked U.S. State Department cables, first obtained by WikiLeaks. Other cables speak to Libya's role in freeing Western hostages.

For example, a few weeks after the Canadian hostages were released as part of a prisoner swap and ransom package, a U.S. diplomat challenged Mali's leader. What was he doing to kick out the kidnappers – a group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – from their safe havens in the country's north?

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President Amadou Touré "denied once again that Mali paid or received any ransom money for hostages." He pointed out that a similar case involving Austrian hostages had been negotiated by other parties who had been "bypassing official channels to involve the Libyans in direct negotiations with AQIM."

Some State Department cables repeat rumours that Gadhafi family members ran cash to kidnappers. "Press reports claim that some five million euros have been transferred to persons in the Sahel, with the help of a son of Libyan leader Qadhafi, to buy the freedom of the three Spanish hostages," one says.

The precise Libyan role in the Canadian crisis is unclear. Two weeks after the Canadian diplomats were kidnapped, Col. Gadhafi made an impromptu visit to the capital of Mali, though there are no indications this visit had much to do with the hostage crisis there.

"True to form, the self-styled 'King of African Kings' popped in without advance notice to delve into Mali's internal affairs," one cable reads. Another points out his "irreverence for sovereignty and modern borders" gave his officials a lot of freedom to operate.

Early this year, Mr. Kousa, Libya's spymaster-turned-foreign minister, defected to the United Kingdom as rebel armies started gaining momentum.

Thanking him for Libya's role in the Fowler-Guay crisis was Canada's No. 2 goal during the scheduled October, 2009 meeting. The primary objective? Smooth over a bilateral row in order to protect Canada's "huge commercial interests" in Libyan oil and gas, according to the briefing note.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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