Relief mixed with embarrassment for Madrid over hostages
The release of two Spanish hostages by an Al-Qaeda offshoot in north Africa left the Madrid government facing some awkward questions Tuesday over reports it had made huge ransom payments.
Albert Vilalta, 35, and Roque Pascual, 50, both aid workers, returned home to Spain early on Tuesday after being held captive for nine months in Mali by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the North African branch of Osama bin Laden's terror network.
The AQIM said it had agreed to free the two after some of its demands were met, Spain's leading daily El Pais reported, quoting an audio statement the newspaper said was from the group.
The group gave no details, but Malian mediators told AFP on Tuesday that AQIM received a ransom of around eight million euros (10 million dollars).
AQIM had also reportedly been seeking the release of the mastermind behind the kidnapping who was jailed in Mauritania and freed in Mali just hours before the hostages were released.
"Eight million euros, that's also my figure," said a northern Malian lawmaker who was involved in the negotiations to free the Spanish aid workers.
"That's what the operation cost the Spanish government, which didn't act like the British who didn't want to pay. The Spanish paid," he said.
British hostage Edwin Dyer was killed by AQIM in May 2009.
El Mundo newspaper said the Madrid government paid out 6.8 million euros to secure the release of the two men and a third aid worker, Alicia Gamez, who was kidnapped at the same time and freed in March.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, confirming the release of the captives on Monday, made no mention of any ransom payment.
He said only that the government had "stepped up the activities of its political, diplomatic and intelligence services to secure their release."
Secretary of State for International Cooperation Soraya Rodriguez refused to comment on the AQIM claim that its demand had been met.
Rodriguez, who accompanied the two aid workers on their return to Spain, told national radio that to do so would be to "enter into the dynamics" of "blackmail and extortion."
El Pais said the political parties "have the right to know how the release has been achieved and the government has a duty to explain."
But "the place for this is the Secret Committee of Congress" not an "open debate," which would be "futile and risky," it said in an editorial.
El Mundo said the AQIM statement could harm Spain's image in the world.
"The kidnapping of Vilalta and Pascual had a happy outcome for our compatriots, but it came at a high price, both economic and political," it said.
One Spanish expert on international relations, Carlos Echeverria Jesus, said governments faced with such situations "are under pressure from public opinion and end up giving in and negotiating.
"Apart from the money and the release of prisoners in exchange, it is propaganda for (the kidnappers) and an invitation to continue to kidnap and blackmail Western countries," said the professor at Spain's UNED distance-learning university.
Algerian President Abelaziz Bouteflika last year appealed to the UN General Assembly for "a total ban on the payment of ransoms to hostage-takers, who have reached worrying numbers in recent years."
The three Spanish aid workers were seized in Mauritania on November 29, and handed over to AQIM in Mali.
On his return Vilalta said they were held under "very hard conditions" in the Sahara desert but were not ill-treated and he thanked the Madrid government for working to obtain their release.
Their release followed the August 16 transfer from Mauritania to Mali of the kidnap mastermind, Malian national Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma, who had been jailed for 12 years by a Mauritanian court.
A member of his family and a regional mediator said late Monday that Hamma, who has strong ties to AQIM although he is not a member of the group, was freed shortly before the hostages were released.
In its statement AQIM also said the release of the Spaniards should serve as "a lesson" for the French secret service, referring to a French-Mauritanian raid in Mali last month that failed to rescue a French hostage, who was subsequently killed by his captors.
"They had the chance to act responsibly ... and avoid the madness and anger that led to the deaths of their citizens," it said.
© 2010 AFP