ABIDJAN (Reuters) - A Malian Islamist militant under an international arrest warrant has been freed from detention in Mauritania, according to a group investigating crimes by Islamist insurgents during their occupation of northern Mali.
Sidi Mohamed Ould Mohamed Ould Bouamama, better known as Sanda Ould Bouamama, is a former spokesman for Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked group that joined with other Islamist fighters to seize Mali’s desert north in 2012.
Though driven from northern towns and cities by a French-led military operation a year later, remnants of the Islamist groups remain active.
Ansar Dine last month claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and the Malian army in the capital Bamako and border areas near Ivory Coast and Mauritania.
Suspected militants killed 11 government soldiers in a raid on a army base near the ancient northern city of Timbuktu on Monday. A military spokesman said on Thursday five people had been arrested in connection with the attack.
Florent Geel, Africa Desk Director of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), told Reuters FIDH had confirmed Ould Bouamama was released from detention on Monday, adding that his current whereabouts were unknown.
“Freeing an individual of this calibre will obviously allow him to again take up his jihadist activities and continue to commit crimes,” Geel said.
Ould Bouamama, who holds both Malian and Mauritanian citizenship, surrendered to Mauritanian authorities after fleeing Mali as French and African troops routed the Islamists in 2013.
Since then, he had been held in a secret location.
Mauritanian officials have never officially acknowledged that Ould Bouamama was being detained and could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
During their occupation of Mali’s north, the insurgents enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law, carrying out public stonings for adultery, severing the hands of accused thieves and performing forced marriages.
Ould Bouamama is under an international arrest warrant issued by Malian judicial authorities accusing him of crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, murder, terrorist acts and other infractions.
Mauritania failed to act on the warrant, which was transmitted to its authorities by Interpol, despite the existence of a judicial cooperation treaty between the two neighbours.
“We’re baffled by the liberation of this terrorist, who was at the forefront of the jihadist occupation,” a senior Malian military official told Reuters.
Major General Michael Lollesgaard, the top military commander with Mali’s U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, voiced concern over news of Ould Bouamama’s release.
“If this particular spokesman has done nothing criminal he can be released, but if he is accused of terrorist actions we should keep him in jail. We don’t need more of these guys on the ground right now.”
FIDH filed a criminal complaint in March on behalf of 33 people who accuse Ould Bouamama, a native of Timbuktu, and others of responsibility for crimes committed in the city while it was under Islamist control.
Additional reporting by Emma Farge and Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Kissima Diagana in Nouakchott; editing by Andrew Roche