Kidnapper was present at release of Spanish hostages: media

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The mastermind behind the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers was present in the Malian desert when they were released at the weekend, Spanish media said Wednesday.

Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma, known as "Omar the Sahrawi", was sentenced to 12 years in prison in Mauritania for the kidnapping, but extradited to Mali and then freed just jours before the two Spanish hostages were released.

The hostages, Albert Vilalta, 35, and Roque Pascual, 50, returned home to Spain early Tuesday after being held captive for nine months in Mali by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the north African offshoot of Osama's bin Laden's terror group.

Hamma, a mercenary who was acting for AQIM, was freed in exchange for release of the aid workers, and even drove them to the handover point in the Malian desert, the newspaper El Pais said.

"The Al-Qaeda terrorists wanted to verify that (Hamma) had been freed and was in good health," the paper said.

Images filmed by the Mauritanian production company Sahara Media and shown on TV3 Tuesday evening show the meeting between Hamma and the hostages themselves, the El Mundo newspaper said.

They show the hostages joking with Hamma, one of them saying "Omar, you're taking us on a trip to the desert," it said.

Hamma's extradition to Mali was one of AQIM's demands to release the two.

Spanish newspapers said Spain also paid between 7.0 and 8.0 million euros in exchange for Vilalta and Pascual.

© 2010 AFP

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