BAMAKO: An al Qaeda-linked jihadist group based in northern Mali said Wednesday it had freed three European hostages who were kidnapped in western Algeria last October.
“Consider them freed, because our conditions were respected,” Mohamed Ould Hicham, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), told AFP.
He said a ransom had been paid for the three aid workers, a Spanish man and woman and an Italian woman, referring to it as a “debt”, but he would not be drawn on the amount.
“The hostages were freed not far from Gao (north eastern Mali), we handed them to a delegation from Burkina Faso. They are currently with the Burkinabes,” said Hicham.
This was confirmed by a military source in Burkina Faso, which is often involved in mediation for hostage releases.
Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi confirmed the release of the Italian woman Rossella Urru, describing it as “beautiful news”.
In Madrid, a spokesman for the foreign minister said: “The liberation process is almost finished, it was delayed by a sandstorm... A plane was sent to bring home the two Spaniards.”They are Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez Rincon.
The hostages were abducted from a Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria.
Sahrawis are people from the disputed Western Saharan territory that abutts Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria.
The previously unknown group Mujao claimed responsibility, presenting themselves as an offshoot of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In May, Mujao demanded the release of two Sahrawis arrested by Mauritania for their role in the kidnapping, as well as 30 million euros in ransom.
They threatened to kill the Spanish man if their demands were not met.
In Nouakchott, online news agency Alakhbar reported that among Islamist prisoners exchanged for the hostages was a Sahrawi called Memine Ould Oufkir, one of those arrested in the wake of the kidnapping.
Mujao last week said they had freed three of seven Algerian diplomats kidnapped during the takeover of the northern Mali city of Gao in late March.
No further details were given on a ransom or the identity of those freed.
Mujao, along with Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) and a Tuareg rebel group, seized key northern Mali cities in the chaos that followed a March 22 coup in Mali's southern capital of Bamako.
However the extremists have since forced the Tuareg fighters, who wanted an independent secular state, out of key positions as they seek to implement strict Islamic law.
In Timbuktu, Ansar Dine has exerted its control, whipping unmarried couples, smokers and drinkers and destroying ancient World Heritage shrines it considers idolatrous.
Mujao is holding the city of Gao.
Both groups have stated ties to AQIM and other extremist groups on the continent, raising fears that the vast region could become a safe-haven for extremist groups.
AQIM has for years carried out attacks, kidnapped foreigners and been involved in drug and human trafficking in the Sahel.
Thirteen hostages are still being held in Africa's Sahel region after the Mujao freed on Wednesday two Spanish and one Italian hostage kidnapped in western Algeria in October 2011.
Northern Mali, in the vast and arid Sahel region which runs south of the Sahara desert, has been under the control of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and armed Islamist group Ansar Dine, allied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), since late March.
HOSTAGES DETAINED BY AQIM
- September 16, 2010: Militants seize five French nationals plus a citizen of Togo and a citizen of Madagascar from the huge uranium mine run by the French company Areva at Arlit in northern Niger.
A French woman hostage who is ill is freed along with the Togolese and the Madagascan on February 24, 2011.
On October 7, 2011, officials in charge of negotiating the release of the remaining four French nationals say they are in good health, but that their abductors are demanding that France withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.
- November 24, 2011: Two Frenchmen described as geologists are abducted from their hotel in the northern Malian town of Hombori. Two weeks later AQIM publishes photos of the two in captivity. A video shot in late February, seen by AFP, shows the two.
- November 25, 2011: In an attack on Timbuktu, AQIM militants try to seize four Europeans. One of them, a German, is killed while the other three -- a Swede, a Dutch national and a Briton who also has South African citizenship -- are kidnapped by AQIM. On December 8-9 AQIM claims responsibility for the abductions and publishes photographs of the hostages.
HOSTAGES DETAINED BY MUJAO
- April 5, 2012: The Algerian consul and six members of his team are abducted in Gao in northeastern Mali. On April 8 MUJAO claims responsibility. On July 15 the Algerian foreign ministry announces the liberation of three of the seven hostages.