By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Veteran Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler is one of few westerners to have been taken captive by Islamist militant leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and to have lived to tell the tale.
Belmokhtar has claimed responsibility on behalf of al Qaeda for the four-day siege in Algeria last week that resulted in the deaths of at least 23 hostages and 32 militants, according to a regional website.
Algerian officials have also blamed Belmokhtar's group for the attack, one of the worst international hostage crises in decades, though they said he was not there himself. [ID: nL6N0AO37H]
Fowler, a retired foreign service officer whose career included a long posting as Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, was appointed in 2008 as the U.N. special envoy to Niger, which was torn by civil strife driven by a Tuareg insurgency in the uranium-rich north of the country.
Fowler, fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay, and their driver were on their way back to Niamey, Niger's capital, just before the weekend in mid-December 2008 when their vehicle was blocked and waylaid by three militants in a pickup truck armed with AK-47 assault rifles. The attackers bound the diplomats and their driver, threw them into the back of their truck, and drove off the road and into the heart of the Sahara Desert.
Fowler told Reuters that after an 1,100-kilometer (680-mile) trek across unmarked sands, the three captives and their three captors arrived at an encampment on a hill marked by four pickup trucks rigged with heavy machine guns. For the next eight weeks, Fowler said, he and his fellow prisoners were confined to a patch of desert on the hill, with only one or two rare visits to a tent. There they were forced to make "proof of life" videos that were circulated to Western media as ransom messages.
Penned in the open desert day and night, he and his colleagues were uncomfortable and terrified. Throughout their captivity, the prisoners ate little more than rice cooked in powdered milk, Fowler said.
"It was appalling food ... and iffy water," he said.
Fowler believes that during most of their 130 days in captivity, he and his fellow prisoners were held somewhere in the remote deserts of Mali.
Earlier this month, French President Francois Hollande ordered French troops into that sparsely populated north African country to combat Islamist and Tuareg rebels, who were advancing toward the Malian capital, Bamako.
Not long after the three prisoners arrived in the desert, Fowler said they had their first encounter with the man they learned was the "emir," or leader of the group of captors. The group described themselves as members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the north African affiliate of the central al Qaeda network.
The emir, a short, intense man who was older than the men who captured and guarded the prisoners, wore a black turban and called himself Khaled. But his most striking feature was that he had only one eye. It was said that he had lost the other while fighting with Islamic warriors against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Fowler, who published a book on his experiences entitled "A Season in Hell," said he is certain the one-eyed man was Mokhtar Belmokhtar, then a top commander of AQIM, a group noted then and now for kidnapping for ransom and other criminal activities including cigarette smuggling.
INTENSE AND MECURIAL EMIR
To give themselves with some privacy in their discussions, Fowler and the other captives gave their captors nicknames. To the intense and mercurial emir, they awarded the moniker "Jack," in honor of the one-eyed figure on playing cards.
Fowler said Jack did not live at the site with his captives but would visit them irregularly, first at the hilltop encampment and then at a series of 23 different locations where they were held during an itinerant period of several weeks.
Sometimes, he said, Jack would come and talk to them for an hour and then disappear for days. Sometimes he would stay with them for three days at a time.
These encounters were not friendly or intimate.
"He was a very focused guy," Fowler said. He told his captives that they were "prisoners of war," "apostates" and "infidels," captured in a struggle between righteous Islamic fighters and evil Western powers and the United Nations. "He was all business all the time," though sometimes the captors lightened up slightly as they tried to convince their prisoners to convert to Islam.
"If we wanted to talk about anything, it was through the prism of Islam," Fowler said.
Jack spoke only Arabic and Tamasheq, a Berber language spoken by the Tuareg, so Fowler and his fellow captives spoke to him in French, which was then translated to Jack by associates who themselves spoke that language flawlessly.
After more than four months in captivity, Fowler said, he and his fellow prisoners were introduced to an older, more courtly militant, who told them they were about to be freed. The process of their release, however, took another 11 days, during which Guay's life was threatened and Fowler concluded that he himself would never make it out alive.
Throughout the terrifying endgame, Fowler says, Jack and a fellow emir, who called himself Abu Zaid, were "very much involved." Abu Zaid turned out to be holding two European women as hostages.
Eventually, Fowler said, his two fellow captives and Abu Zaid's two female hostages were driven to a town on the road to Bamako and released.
Toward the end, Fowler's captors had said: "Your country doesn't want you back, but we are going to release you."
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has denied that Canada paid a ransom to free the diplomats. A U.S. State Department cable released by the WikiLeaks organization, and cited by Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper, quotes Libya's intelligence chief at the time as saying a ransom was paid, but not how much or by whom.
Western security officials said Belmokhtar subsequently fell out with, or was ejected from the al Qaeda affiliate either because he was too pushy or too interested in self-promotion.
U.S. and European officials say that as the leader of the AQIM spinoff, which launched the latest bloody attack and hostage taking at BP's gas plant in remote Algeria, Fowler's one-eyed Jack has acted true to form. (Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)