Freed hostages meet Mali president

24th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Swiss, German and Canadian hostages meet with President Toure before returning home.

BAMAKO - Two Canadian diplomats and two European tourists released by Al-Qaeda-linked captors after months as hostages met Thursday with deal broker Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure on their return home.

Robert Fowler, UN special envoy to Niger, and his assistant Louis Guay met with the president first. Fowler, thinner and wearing a long beard, told 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.

The Canadian diplomats 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 wore 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.

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 were 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 taken hostage in Niger and the four tourists were kidnapped while visiting a Tuareg festival in northern Mali.

Mali, Canada, Germany and Switzerland were silent about the conditions of the negotiated release, although Canada's prime minister said that no ransom was paid.

Canada, the United Nations and Mali all thanked Mali's neighbour Burkina Faso for its role in the negotiations but would not go into details about what they 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 taken hostage in January.

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

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 neighbouring Niger they were released in northern Mali close to the border. Both Mali and Niger experienced Tuareg uprisings in the region, complicating military control of the zone.

The Sahel, with vast stretches of desert, is difficult to control. Rebel movements and other armed groups can easily travel over borders between the countries.

Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb said it aims 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 also claimed a series of deadly suicide bombings in Algeria, other attacks in the region and several kidnappings.

AFP / Serge Daniel / Expatica

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