2 Spanish hostages held by al-Qaida offshoot freed in Mali, en route to Burkina Faso

By Martin Vogl, AP
Monday, August 23, 2010

Al-Qaida group frees 2 Spanish in Mali

BAMAKO, Mali — Two Spanish aid workers kidnapped almost nine months ago by an al-Qaida affiliate have been set free, Spain’s prime minister said Monday, ending a hostage drama that involved several nations.

Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta were kidnapped when their convoy of SUVs was attacked in Mauritania on Nov. 29 while they were delivering supplies to poor villagers. They were taken to northern Mali, a remote desert area which has become one of the operating bases for al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and were among the longest-held hostages in the Sahara.

“This has been 268 days of suffering for them and their families,” Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told reporters in Madrid.

The release happened just days after a Malian who was sentenced in Mauritania for the kidnapping was extradited back to his home country. AQIM had demanded his return as a condition for the release of the two aid workers.

The two boarded a helicopter at an undisclosed location and were taking off for Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, said an advisor to Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore who helped negotiate their release and who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone over the din of the helicopter blades. The advisor spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

They are due to arrive in Ouagadougou by mid-afternoon and were then to continue on to Spain, said a Western diplomat who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Francesco Osan of the group Barcelona Solidarity Action, the agency the two aid workers belonged to, said they will arrive back in Spain on Monday night.

Not long after the were kidnapped, Mauritanian commandos led a raid in northern Mali where they seized Malian national Omar Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Hama, who goes by the alias Omar Sahraoui. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison by a Mauritanian judge for the kidnappings.

The embassy official said AQIM had demanded Sahraoui’s return as a condition of the release of the aid workers. He was extradited to Mali on Aug. 15.

Vilalta is believed to have suffered gunshot wounds to the leg while trying to elude capture on the day of the kidnapping.

A third worker, Alicia Gamez, captured with the men was released in March.

Mauritania, on Africa’s western coast, has been rocked by attacks by the radical Islamic group which has spread its tentacles across the vast desert encompassing swaths of Mali, Niger and Algeria. The terror group appears to be financing itself through a ‘kidnap economy’ and in recent years they have abducted Austrian, Swiss, Italian, French and Canadian nationals.

Associated Press writers Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal and Brahima Ouadraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso contributed to this report.

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