Freed Al-Qaeda hostages meet Mali president

24th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Two Canadian diplomats and two European tourists who were held hostage for months by Al-Qaeda's north African wing are reportedly in good health.

BAMAKO –  Two Canadian diplomats and two European tourists released by Al-Qaeda-linked captors after months as hostages met Thursday with dealbroker Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure en route for home.

Robert Fowler, UN special envoy to Niger, and his assistant Louis Guay met with the president first. Fowler, visibly thinner and sporting a long beard, was overheard telling the Malian president "thank you" but did not make any public declaration.

Canadian ambassador Isabelle Roy, who was present at the meeting, thanked Mali for the "efforts deployed".

"It was the first time Canada asked us to assist them and we felt it was our duty to contribute to the release of its nationals," Toure said in a short statement.

According to the entourage of the Canadian diplomats they are set to leave Bamako Friday morning.

Toure also separately met with two European women released, German Marianne Petzold and Swiss Gabriella Greitner. The 77-year-old Petzold had bandages around one hand and did not speak to the media.

Before meeting Toure, Greitner briefly spoke telling journalists "I'm suffering, I'm hurt," according to a translation provided by a European journalist present.

It is not sure when Greitner and Petzold will return to Switzerland and Germany respectively.

Malian authorities said Wednesday the four were released after being held hostage "in the Sahel zone" and were generally in good health.

There were no details about where they had been detained within the desert zone that covers Mali, Algeria, Mauritania and Niger.

The kidnappers are still holding two others: Greitner's husband and a Briton.

The Canadian diplomats were snatched in Niger while the four tourists were kidnapped while visiting a Tuareg festival in northern Mali.

Mali, Canada, Germany and Switzerland were also keeping silent about the conditions of the negotiated release although Canada's prime minister stressed that no ransom had been paid.

Canada, the United Nations and Mali have all made a point of thanking Mali's neighbor Burkina Faso for its role in the negotiations but would not go into details about what Ouagadougou did.

"I would like to thank my brother Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina who has given us his support from the start. He helped achieve this happy ending," Toure said Thursday.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) claimed responsibility in February for the kidnapping of the Canadian diplomats in December and the four tourists snatched in January.

According to Malian officials close to the negotiations Al-Qaeda initially demanded the release of Mauritanian Islamic militants held in Mali then later tried to exchange its captives for Islamists arrested in Europe.

Pressed for details on any terms met for the release, Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper said Canada is "always willing to pursue negotiated resolutions" of hostage takings, but added Canada "does not pay ransoms. And we do not release prisoners."

While the hostages were abducted in neighboring Niger they were released in northern Mali close to the border. Both Mali and Niger have been plagued by Tuareg uprisings in the region making military control of the zone more difficult.

The Sahel, with vast stretches of inhospitable desert, is notoriously difficult to control. Rebel movements and other armed groups roam largely unhindered over borders between the countries.

Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb has said it intended to unify armed Islamist groups in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, as well as emerging groups in countries bordering the Sahara like Niger and Mali.

It has also claimed a series of deadly suicide bombings in Algeria, other attacks in the region and several kidnappings.

AFP / Expatica

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