Spanish hostages step from helicopter to freedom after 268 days in hands of al-Qaida offshoot

By Brahima Ouedraogo, AP
Monday, August 23, 2010

2 Spanish hostages land in Burkina Faso

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Two Spanish nationals kidnapped nearly nine months ago by an al-Qaida-linked group stepped out of a helicopter to freedom in Burkina Faso’s capital Monday where they were greeted by diplomats.

Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta walked out of the chopper wearing polo shirts and khaki pants. One of them — believed to be Vilalta who is known to have suffered bullet wounds to his leg during the kidnapping — was holding a cane.

“It’s a great day,” one of the freed men said to reporters.

They were handed a telephone and reporters could hear them saying “muchas gracias,” or many thanks. Reporters were told that they were talking to the Spanish prime minister. The two will now take a flight back to Spain.

The aid workers 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 in Mali earlier Monday and were then taken to Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso.

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.

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 Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali, Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.

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