Freed Canadian, European hostages to fly home from Mali
Bamako -- Two Canadian diplomats and two European tourists released by Al Qaeda's North African branch were to fly back to their home countries Thursday after a kidnapping ordeal that lasted several months.
Robert Fowler, UN special envoy to Niger, and his assistant Louis Guay, German tourist Marianne Petzold and Swiss Gabriella Greitner arrived in Mali’s capital Bamako early Thursday and were expected to meet the Malian president before setting off again in the afternoon.
The kidnappers are still holding on to two others: Greitner’s husband and a Briton.
Malian authorities confirmed Wednesday night that the four were released after being held hostage "in the Sahel zone." They added that they were in good health.
There were no details about where they had been freed or held within the zone that connects Mali, Algeria, Mauritania and Niger.
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 mum about the conditions of the negotiated release although Canada’s prime minister stressed that no ransom had been paid.
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 and later tried to exchange its captives for Islamists arrested in Europe.
The same sources said the hostages had been held by Moctar Ben Moctar, one Al-Qaeda’s North African leaders. It remains unclear if any of their demands were met.
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."
In a statement from Ottawa, Harper thanked the governments of Mali and Burkina Faso for their mediation efforts which secured the release.
"Regarding any initiatives that could have been taken by other governments, you would have to ask them about it," he added.
Malian officials, particularly local politicians, played a key role in securing the release of the hostages, said officials in Gao, northern Mali.
They said the Canadians were freed first after lengthy negotiations with Canada and it was only on the Malian negotiators’ insistence that the kidnappers finally agreed to release the women tourists as well.
While the hostages were abducted in neighbouring 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 region, with vast stretches of inhospitable desert, is notoriously difficult to control. Rebel movements and other armed groups roam largely unhindered across it and 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.
In October last year an Austrian couple, who had been snatched by the Al Qaeda group while on holiday in Tunisia, were freed in north Mali after being held for eight months.