Spanish Qaeda hostages freed in Mali: government

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Two Spanish nationals held hostage by Al-Qaeda's North African branch since being kidnapped in Mauritania nine months ago have been freed, the Spanish government announced Monday.

"The two hostages have been freed," a government spokesman said, adding that Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero would make a statement at 1215 GMT.

Media reports said earlier that the two aid workers, Albert Vilalta, 35, and Roque Pascual, 50, were heading from Mali, where they had been taken after their abduction, to the border with Burkina Faso following their release.

A Spanish government official on Sunday had told AFP that "we are working for a happy conclusion of this case."

The two aid workers were kidnapped north of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on November 29, along with a third Spaniard, 39-year-old Alicia Gamez, who was freed in March.

The release comes after the August 16 transfer from Mauritania to Mali of the kidnap mastermind, Malian national Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma, who was jailed for 12 years by a Mauritanian court.

Daily El Mundo reported on Monday that the release was due to the transfer of Hamma, and the Spanish government paying a ransom of 3.8 million euros (4.8 million dollars)

Hamma -- nicknamed "Omar the Sahrawi" -- has strong ties to the North African branch of Osama bin Laden's terror network, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which not an AQIM militant himself.

Malian security forces took an uncuffed Hamma to an unknown destination following his arrival, with a Malian justice source suggesting he could be living under house arrest.

Relations between the neighbouring countries have been strained with Mauritania accusing Mali of being soft on AQIM after it released four prisoners in exchange for French hostage Pierre Camatte in February.

The release of Vilalta and Pascual has also exposed divisions in the AQIM network.

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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