Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada wants answers from Algeria

Leader claimed Canadians involved in kidnappings

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OTTAWA -- The Foreign Affairs Department has called in Algeria's ambassador to Canada to get more information on why the country's prime minister labelled some of the hostage-takers in last week's gas-plant siege as Canadian.

The diplomatic discussion was part of Ottawa's ongoing efforts to either confirm or debunk reports there were two Canadians among the terrorists involved in the attack on the remote plant in the Algerian desert, as claimed by Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal.

The federal government is trying to determine whether any key papers that might point to Canadian involvement are valid or fake, and they're growing frustrated with the lack of detailed information coming from Algerian officials.

Canadian diplomats in Algeria are also requesting access to the information the Algerians are using to identify any of the militants as "Canadian," a government official said.

Some 37 hostages and 29 militants were killed when Algerian forces stormed the complex; five other foreign workers remain unaccounted for.

Meanwhile, U.S. observers played down any concerns Tuesday the reports could undermine confidence in Canada south of the border.

Even if Canadians are indeed found to be among the militants in Algeria, it's not likely to cause any lingering security concerns south of the border, say U.S. observers.

That's because the two North American neighbours -- the world's two largest trading partners -- are already seeing the benefits of more than 10 years of efforts to deepen co-operation on security and trade.

The perimeter security pact, signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper some 13 months ago, has deepened intelligence sharing and debunked U.S. perceptions Canada was a haven for terrorists.

Debunking that view became a major preoccupation for Canadian diplomats following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., when erroneous reports initially emerged that some of the 9-11 hijackers had gained entry through Canada.

"I don't think it will be a rift, but it's a reminder certainly for the Obama administration that some of these problems have an impact close to home," said Chris Sands, a veteran expert on Canada-U.S. relations with Washington's Hudson Institute.

More problematic, though, was the 1999 arrest of Algerian-born, Montreal-based al-Qaida member Ahmed Ressam, who was caught trying to enter the U.S. in a plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve.

"In some ways, the United States was always a little more worried about the Algerian community that settled in Montreal and what they were up to," said Sands. "After Ressam, the Americans were saying this community is a problem and Canada was in some sort of denial, saying these are legitimate Canadians, we can't single them out, this is unfair, we're casting aspersions."

Over the last 10 years, "Canada started to take the challenge more seriously as well -- not accusing the whole community of being a problem, but trying to do a better job of gathering intelligence."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2013 A8

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