Spanish aid workers freed by Al-Qaeda head home

23rd August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Two Spanish aid workers headed for home on Monday after being freed by Al-Qaeda's North African branch, ending a gruelling nine-month hostage ordeal in the Sahara desert.

"Albert Vilalta and Roque Pasqual are free. They have been freed after spending 268 days in the hands of their kidnappers," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said in a brief televised statement.

The release is "very good news" and "puts an end to a terrorist action which should never have happened," he said.

Vilalta, 35, and Pascual, 50, who worked for Catalan aid group Accio Solidaria, were seized north of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on November 29, with a third Spaniard, 39-year-old Alicia Gamez, who was freed in March.

They were handed over to the North African branch of Osama bin Laden's terror network, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who held them in Mali.

After being freed the pair arrived in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso which borders Mali, at 5:51 pm (1751 GMT) on Monday on a Burkinabe military helicopter, an AFP journalist there said.

The men -- who were visibly exhausted with one of them leaning on a crutch for support -- were greeted by Spanish Secretary of State for Cooperation Soraya Rodriguez and Burkina Faso's president Blaise Compaore.

They were to continue on to Barcelona late on Monday on a special flight.

Their release follows 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.

Hamma has strong ties to AQIM, although not a member of the group himself.

Spanish dailies El Mundo and ABC both reported on Monday that their release was the result of Hamma's transfer and a payment by the Spanish government which El Mundo put at 3.8 million euros (4.8 million dollars) and ABC at between 5.0 million and 10 million.

Zapatero made no mention of any ransom in his statement.

"It has been nine months of suffering for them and their families, days of concern and activity by the government, which stepped up the activities of its political, diplomatic and intelligence services to secure their release," he said.

The prime minister "thanked the various governments for their cooperation, especially the governments in the zone in which the kidnapping happened."

A Malian government minister said the two men had been escorted out of Mali via a specially secured route.

"Mali followed the release of the hostages minute by minute, by opening a humanitarian corridor to secure the success of the operation," said the minister who requested anonymity.

Mauritania has accused Mali of being soft on AQIM after it released four prisoners in exchange for French hostage Pierre Camatte in February.

The pair were being held by a cell led by Algeria's Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed "Belawar", who paid Hamma to kidnap them.

While Belmokhtar is considered more a businessman than a religious fanatic, he is believed to be under pressure from a radical branch of AQIM led by another Algerian, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid.

Zeid has overseen the deaths of two Western hostages, Briton Edwin Dyer and Frenchman Michel Germaneau. The latter was killed after a Franco-Mauritanian raid in an attempt to find him, in which seven of Zeid's men were killed.

He is believed to have been demanding the execution of the Spaniards in retaliation for the July 22 military operation.

© 2010 AFP

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