Spanish aid workers freed by Al-Qaeda in Mali

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Two Spanish aid workers held hostage for the past nine months by Al-Qaeda's North African branch have been freed in Mali, the Spanish government announced Monday.

"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.

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

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

"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."

The prime minister said the two are to arrive in Barcelona late on Monday on a special flight accompanied by close relatives and Secretary of State for Cooperation Soraya Rodriguez.

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

"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.

He did not say where this route was or where the hostages were.

A security source in the Sahel as well as Spanish media said the two had to travel to the border with Burkina Faso.

Their release comes after 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.

Spanish daily El Mundo reported on Monday that the release was the result of Hamma's transfer and a payment by the Spanish government of 3.8 million euros (4.8 million dollars).

Zapatero made no mention of any ransom in his statement, in which he "thanked the various governments for their cooperation, especially the governments in the zone in which the kidnapping happened."

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), although not an AQIM militant himself.

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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