Staff Reporters and Sapa
The family of a SA man who has become a pawn in a worldwide political power-play between the UK and al-Qaeda say they are “worried”.
Steven McGowan, 36, was travelling through Mali on a trans-Africa journey when he was one of three tourists abducted by gunmen from a restaurant in Timbuktu on November 25.
The attackers shot and killed a fourth tourist, a German, when he refused to climb into their truck.
McGowan was named by International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in Parliament last week and has become a bargaining chip in an al-Qaeda plot to have a militant Jordanian preacher released from house arrest in the UK and returned to the Middle East.
Al-Qaeda’s North African branch – al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – offered to free him yesterday in return for the release of London-based radical preacher Abu Qatada.
McGowan has joint SA-British citizenship, and has also erroneously been identified as Steven Malcolm.
AQIM released a picture of the three men in December. The other hostages were identified as a Swiss, Nils Joan Viktor Gustafson, and Dutch national Jacobus Nicolo Ruke.
The South African’s family had been negotiating for his release for the past few months, but were shocked to hear of the al-Qaeda message this morning.
McGowan’s father, who declined to give his name,said he was currently in the UK visiting his daughter, but had been informed of the al-Qaeda bid. However, he had not been briefed by either the British or SA Department of International Relations on any negotiations.
“Of course we are worried, but we can’t comment at this time,” he said.
Britain is planning to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan, where he has been convicted in absentia of involvement in militant plots.
But the organisation warned Britain not to hand over the preacher to his native Jordan, a statement on an Islamist website said.
“The initiative to the British government is to release its citizen Stephen Malcolm (sic) who also has South African nationality, if it deports Abu Qatada to one of the ‘Arab Spring’ countries,” said the statement, purportedly from AQIM.
“If Britain ignores this offer it will bear the consequences of handing Abu Qatada to the Jordanian government.”
In November, the North African branch of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of McGowan, together with two other tourists.
He had been travelling south from Timbuktu and was set to be back home in December.
“They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said McGowan’s father.
He said the family had been briefed by top hostage negotiators in the SAPS, and had been told to maintain “a low profile” as too much information in the public domain could jeopardise the case.
Department of International Relations spokesman Clayson Monyela was unwilling to comment on SA’s response to the bid. However, he did say that both the British government and the family had been contacted and were set to be briefed soon.
The McGowan development broke as another South African, eNews’s East Africa bureau chief Robyn Kriel, escaped unscathed from violence in another African hot spot: South Sudan.
She tweeted: “Cameraman Orto Sori & I came under heavy fire in Unity State with the SPLA (the Sudan Peole’s Liberation Army). MiGs and (helicopter) gunships shooting/ shelling. Very scary.”
She told CNN they had taken cover in trenches dug by the army.
Ben Said of e.tv told the Cape Argus: “They were out on a routine (drive) and came under fire. It wasn’t as if they were in a war zone or anything – it came out of the blue. But she’s perfectly fine.”
Meanwhile, the SA embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, has requested consular access to an SA landmine clearer detained there, says the Department of International Relations.
“The embassy has asked for consular access to him so we can render the necessary support to him,” said Monyela.
The other countries whose citizens were detained on suspicion of being part of the recent resurgence of violence in the region were also trying to get consular access but none had succeeded yet.
“The efforts will continue today (Monday),” said Monyela.
The SA landmine clearer identified as Thabo Siave, who works for Mechem, a division of SA arms company Denel, was detained with Norwegian John Sorbo, an unnamed British national and an unnamed South Sudan national, a spokesmanfor the Sudanese military said on Saturday.
Army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad said the four had been part of military aggression from now independent Republic of South Sudan directed at Sudan. He said they had been “captured” at a disputed oilfield area called Heglig.
Mechem chief executive Ashley Williams said he had been instructed to refer queries to Denel, whose spokesperson was not available.
However, before this instruction, he told media that Siave and the South Sudanese man were doing landmine clearance with the Briton and Norwegian, with full UN immunity, well within South Sudanese territory.
He denied that they had been in Heglig when the soldiers came upon them, and said the soldiers had actually taken them to Heglig.
The UN’s news service Irin said Heglig one of three still disputed areas.
Lodewyk Pietersen, 55, worked for Saracen International, a security firm that trains anti-piracy forces in Puntland. The SA embassy in Somalia is investigating the murder.
Monyela said they were providing support to Pietersen’s family.
Puntland’s government said on Saturday that Pietersen had been killed while accompanying maritime forces on a government-approved mission targeting pirates near Hul-Anod.
The government said it had launched an investigation.