Malian kidnapper of Spanish aid workers freed: family

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A Malian who masterminded the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers held by Al-Qaeda's North African branch for nine months was freed Monday shortly before the hostages were released, a member of his family told AFP.

The release of the hostages 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.

"Omar was freed shortly before the two Spaniards were freed. I saw it with my own eyes," said Mohamed, his cousin.

A regional mediator confirmed this, saying: "It's true that Omar's release facilitated the liberation of the two Spaniards."

The mediator added that he took part in negotiations leading to their release.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said it agreed to free the two Spaniards after some of its demands were met, the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported, quoting what it said was an audio statement received from the group.

The release was a "lesson for the French secret service," the AQIM statement added, referring to a Mauritanian-French raid in Mali last month that failed to rescue a French hostage and in which seven AQIM members were killed.

Albert Vilalta, 35, and Roque 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 the AQIM, which held them in Mali.

The pair flew to Ouagadougou, the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso which borders Mali, and then within two hours boarded a special flight to Barcelona accompanied by Spanish Secretary of State for Cooperation Soraya Rodriguez.

"Thank you, thank you very much everybody," Vilalta said in French during a brief exchange of words with journalists at the airport in Ouagadougou.

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.

© 2010 AFP

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