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(Dakar) - Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has in recent months stepped up targeting tourists and aid workers for murder and kidnapping in Mali, Niger, and Mauritania, Human Rights Watch said today. AQIM should immediately and unconditionally free hostages in its custody and end attacks on civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

The organization also called on foreign ministers from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, meeting today in Algeria, to categorically denounce AQIM's attacks against civilians, as well as a threat by AQIM made in a March 11 statement to Spanish Daily El País, which underscored the group's willingness to attack civilians. The threat suggested Spain would be "paid in kind" in "a war that does not distinguish between civilians and militants."

"Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's crimes against tourists and aid workers should galvanize governments into action to protect civilians," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "AQIM should free its hostages and end such attacks. And foreign ministers from the region should insist that those responsible are brought to justice."

The AQIM statement to El País also referred to "demands" to the Spanish government to secure the release of two Spanish aid workers it admitted kidnapping in Mauritania on November 29. The communiqué did not specify the demands. A third Spanish aid worker detained at the same time, Alicia Gamez, was released by AQIM on March 10.

Formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the group affiliated itself with al Qaeda in January 2007, and has since extended its operations from Algeria to other North African and Sahel states.

AQIM has been implicated in the deliberate killing of scores of civilians, including the December 28, 2009 killing of four Saudi tourists in Niger; the June 23, 2009 killing of an American missionary in Mauritania; the May 31, 2009 killing of a British tourist; the December 2007 killing of four French tourists in Mauritania; and the December 2007 twin bombings of the United Nations offices and a court building in Algiers that left 41 dead.

In addition to the November kidnapping of the three Spanish aid workers, AQIM also recently kidnapped two Italian tourists in Mauritania on December 18. A French aid worker kidnapped in Niger on November 25 was released on February 23.

"AQIM's criminal acts against civilians demonstrate an utter contempt for human life," Dufka said. "They should immediately desist from committing such crimes."

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