French captives driven to freedom one at a time

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It took several days and 17-hour road-trips through rugged desert to steer to freedom three French hostages abducted by Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the tribesmen who drove them told AFP on Monday.

In a telephone interview after the aid workers boarded a plane to Paris, tribal chief Ali Abdel Salam said he had the unique task of ensuring all three hostages were driven safely from Al-Qaeda strongholds in Yemen's lawless regions across the border to Oman.

"I drove all three of them, one at a time, accompanied by my two brothers," he said.

The process of releasing the captives held by Al-Qaeda since May 28 began last Tuesday and did not end until the last hostage was handed over to Omani officials on Saturday night.

Abdel Salam said he first drove one of the female captives through the desert to a border town in Oman last Tuesday.

"The trip took 17 hours because we were careful to avoid military checkpoints along the way," he said adding that the woman spoke "little Arabic but we managed to communicate using hand signs."

She was the first of the three captives, two women and a man who have not been named, to be driven to the Omani border where Abdel Salam said both French and Omani officials were waiting to greet them.

Abdel Salam then made the journey back to Azzan, an Al-Qaeda stronghold in Yemen's Shabwa province, to pick up the second hostage, the man, and dressed him in traditional Yemeni clothing to avoid detection or suspicion.

"It was best to dress him like a Yemeni," he said, adding that he stopped with him in the desert to take a picture, and also posed separately with the two other hostages on their way to freedom.

Abdel Salam said he asked the male captive to write a letter to the third and last hostage to reassure her that she would be freed soon.

"I handed the letter to the woman and she was relieved and agreed to come with me," he said.

The last captive arrived at the Omani border on Saturday night, he said.

Abdel Salam, who says he was personally involved in the mediation efforts, said the actual release of the hostages was coordinated by a Yemeni businessman, Ahmed ben Ferid al-Souraimeh, and the French ambassador in Oman.

He added that the negotiations with Al-Qaeda took place through "mediators who were both close to the tribes and close to Al-Qaeda."

The hostages arrived in the Omani capital Muscat on Monday where they gave a brief statement to the press and then boarded a plane to Paris.

© 2011 AFP

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