By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA-Canadian authorities were frustrated with the government of Niger and feared they were being fed misleading information by the country’s national police force during the first weeks of the investigation into the 2008 kidnapping of United Nations envoy Robert Fowler and his special assistant Louis Guay, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by APTN National News.
The “secret” cable was written after a meeting in Niamey, Niger, between the local U.S. ambassador and a senior Foreign Affairs diplomat sent by the Canadian government to meet with the Niger government on Fowler and Guay’s disappearance.
A separate, “confidential” cable also shows the hunt for Fowler and Guay was being closely monitored by the U.S and that senior U.S. officials were pressuring African politicians behind the scenes to find a way to free the two kidnapped Canadians.
The cables were provided to APTN National news by whistleblower website Wikileaks. They are part of a batch of confidential and secret cables given to APTN and CBC-Radio Canada.
Wikileaks last week released hundreds of unclassified diplomatic cables originating from the U.S. embassy and consulates in Canada.
Fowler and Guay were kidnapped along with their driver on December 14, 2008 after visiting a Canadian-owned gold mine in Niger.
They were on their way to the capital Niamey when they were kidnapped and taken across the border into Mali where they were held by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for about five months under the constant fear they would be executed.
Their UN-marked vehicle was left at the scene with the engine running, the lights on and cell phones inside.
Fowler and Guay were reportedly released in exchange for a ransom and the release of several militants.
A separate U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks in February suggested a ransom had been paid. The cable was based on a conversation between a senior Libyan official and a U.S. ambassador.
The Canadian government has denied paying a ransom for the Canadians’ release.
Before his kidnapping, Fowler had been appointed as a UN special envoy to Niger which was facing unrest from the Tuareg, a group of mainly nomadic people in the northern region of the country.
Fowler was a former Department of National Defence deputy minister and Canadian ambassador to the UN and Italy.
Guay was a veteran diplomat who served in several embassies, including three years as Canadian ambassador to Gabon, Sudan.
These latest diplomatic cables reveal just how difficult a task Canadian authorities faced trying to first find and then free Fowler and Guay.
Jacques Bilodeau, ambassador for La Francophonie, who was sent by the Canadian government to discuss the issue with the government of Niger, told U.S. ambassador Bernadette Allen that Niger’s national police force was unwilling to share information with the RCMP and government ministers were proving unhelpful, one of the cables said.
Bilodeau was accompanied by Canada’s Cote d’Ivoir ambassador Isabelle Massip, and Foreign Affairs’ Middle East division deputy director Louise Corbin, during the meeting with Allen.
“Bilodeau and Massip expressed frustration about the Nigerien NP unwillingness to collaborate with RCMP counterparts,” said the cable, titled Niger: Government of Canada Sends Special Envoy to Inquire About Missing Canadians.
The Canadian diplomats said Niger’s police mishandled some of the evidence left at the scene inside the abandoned UN-marked vehicle. Cell phones and personal items were left behind in the vehicle after the kidnapping.
“They stated the NP demonstrated insufficient skills to conduct a thorough investigation when it mishandled evidence (the vehicle and materials left behind in the vehicle) that may otherwise have been good leads in the earlier stages of the search,” said the cable, dated Dec. 30, 2008 and sent from the U.S. embassy in Niamey.
The Canadian diplomats also raised concerns the national police were withholding information and too narrowly focusing its investigation.
“They said that the NP has not shared sufficient information with the several RCMP officers assigned to the case and too often simply responds that the NP has the matter under control,” said the cable. “They were dismayed that the NP continues to operate under the assumption that Fowler, Guay…could solely be located somewhere in Niger.”
The officials also speculated on whether Niger’s police was feeding Canadian investigators bad information.
“Bilodeau questioned whether the NP may be intentionally providing misinformation to the RCMP,” the cable said.
Bilodeau said he’d had no better luck dealing with government ministers on the matter, according to the cable.
And he told Allen that his meeting with Niger’s Minister of Interior “wasn’t useful” and that another discussion with Niger’s Documentation and External Security Directorate was equally fruitless.
“He stated the Direction Generale de la Documentation and External Security that handles intelligence work appeared more professional, but also had been guarded in sharing information,” the cable stated.
Allen said Niger’s various security services weren’t keen on sharing information internally with each other either.
She told the Canadian delegation that while the national police may actually be feeding misleading information, they may also be trying to avoid public embarrassment over their porous border.
“The Nigeriens do not want to acknowledge publicly how easy it was for persons to slip across the border into and out of Niger without detection by Nigerien authorities,” the cable quoted Allen saying. “It may be a matter of ‘face’ or pride that the GON will not make known its shortcomings on border security, will likely only react if/when a public statement is made by persons involved in the disappearances.”
Bilodeau told Allen he was pinning hopes on forging closer cooperation with Niger during a meeting with President Mamadou Tandja, who was eventually deposed in a coup in 2010.
“Tandja may now think it not a good thing for Niger to have not resolved the case,” said the cable. “Tandja may not want the GON to be viewed as uncooperative with the Canadians, consequently be seen internationally in a negative light. If the latter is true then Tandja likely will order the NP to collaborate fully with the RCMP.”
After Fowler and Guay’s release, Prime Minister Stephen Harper singled out the African countries of Mali and Burkina Faso for their efforts in helping free Fowler and Guay.
“They understand, as we do, our responsibilities as governments to cooperate in countering terrorism and to ensure the safety and security of all people living within our respective borders,” Harper said in a statement that did not mention Niger.
Senior U.S. officials were also pressuring Mali behind the scenes.
At the request of the Canadian government, U.S. State Department acting assistant secretary Phillip Carter called Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure to discuss the case.
“Carter stressed its importance to the UN, Canadians and United States, saying that these … men were important to UN work,” said the cable, sent February 9 and titled Acting Assistant Secretary Call to Mali President Re Canadian Hostages. “If this situation continues, it will hurt Mali’s image for private investment.”
Toure told Carter that his country was in constant contact and coordination with Canada and that the two Canadians were in “good health,” the cable said.
According to the filing information on the diplomatic cable, it originated from “Secretary of State” and the bottom signature reads “Clinton.”