Monday, August 23, 2010

Spanish hostages 'freed by al-Qaeda in North Africa'

Two Spanish aid workers kidnapped nine months ago by al-Qaeda's North African offshoot have been released in Mali, the Spanish government has confirmed.

Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta were seized by militants from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in neighbouring Mauritania last November.

Spain's prime minister said the two men were "safe and sound" and that their families were travelling to the region.

A female colleague seized with the men, Alicia Gamez, was set free in March.

Their kidnappers had reportedly demanded a $5m (£3.2m) ransom for Mr Pascual, 50, and Mr Vilalta, 35. It is unclear if any payment was made.

Reports of the aid workers' release first appeared in Spanish newspapers on Sunday, but officials said they could not confirm them.

This brings an end to an act of terrorism that should never have happened”
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero
Spanish Prime Minister

On Monday, officials and diplomatic sources said the pair had been set free in Mali and were en route to the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, from where they would fly back to Spain.

"They are safe and sound after 268 days in the hands of their kidnappers and of the Spanish government's concern and efforts to obtain their release," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero later told a news conference.

He said their families were travelling with a government representative to meet them. The organisation for whom they worked, Barcelona-Accio Solidaria, said they were due back on Monday night.

"This brings an end to an act of terrorism that should never have happened," Mr Zapatero said.

The prime minister did not give details of the men's release, but it came just days after Omar Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Hama, a Malian militant who was sentenced in Mauritania for kidnapping the Spaniards, was extradited back to his home country - something that AQIM had reportedly demanded.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged in early 2007, after an Algerian militant group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), aligned itself with Osama Bin Laden's international network.

It has waged a campaign of suicide bomb attacks and ambushes in Algeria, and in recent years has become more active in the Sahara, where governments struggle to impose their authority and gangs of smugglers, bandits and rebels operate alongside the militants.

Last month, the group said it had killed Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old French hostage being held in Mali, after a cross-border raid involving French and Mauritanian troops failed to free him.

AQIM also killed the British hostage, Edwin Dyer, last year after the UK government refused to give in to its demands.


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