European hostages freed in Mali in exchange for Islamists

European hostages freed in Mali in exchange for Islamists
# 20 July 2012 02:38 (UTC +04:00)
Baku-APA. Three European aid workers released in Mali after being kidnapped by an Al-Qaeda-linked group were freed in exchange for three Islamists, a negotiator said on Thursday as they returned home, APA reports quoting AFP.

"There was a compensation, there were releases for releases," a member of the negotiation team told reporters.

The three -- a Spanish man and woman, Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez Rincon, and an Italian woman, Rossella Urru -- arrived Thursday at the airport in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou looking tired but relieved.

The negotiator said Gonyalons had been shot and wounded by one of his captors.

"The (Spanish) man is wounded, there was a mujahideen (fighter) who fired at him deliberately, he is limping a little but it is OK," he said.

The three aid workers arrived on a Burkinabe military plane sent to pick them up in the north Malian city of Gao. Then, accompanied by intelligence officials from their countries, they boarded two planes to go home.

"Thank you very much to Burkina Faso for freeing us," Urru said to reporters before boarding.

The previously unknown Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed responsibility for kidnapping the aid workers in October 2011.

The group, a self-proclaimed offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), on Wednesday announced their release and said a ransom had been paid.

In May MUJAO had demanded the release of two Sahrawis arrested by Mauritania for their role in the kidnapping, as well as 30 million euros ($37 million), for the hostages’ freedom, threatening to kill the Spanish man if their demands were not met.

"We do not know if any ransoms were paid... that is between them (the kidnappers) and the countries concerned," the negotiator said.

Mauritanian news site ANI said a ransom of two million to three million euros had been paid.

The hostages were abducted from a Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, housing people from the disputed Western Saharan territory that abuts Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria.

The region’s Algerian-backed separatist guerrillas, the Polisario Front, said Thursday it was "overjoyed" the hostages had been released and that it had worked toward getting them freed.

In Nouakchott, online news agency Alakhbar reported that among Islamist prisoners exchanged for the hostages was a Sahrawi called Memine Ould Oufkir, one of those arrested in the wake of the kidnapping.

MUJAO said last week it had freed three of seven Algerian diplomats kidnapped during the Islamist seizure of the north Malian city of Gao in late March.

The group, along with the Islamist Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) and Tuareg separatist rebels, overran northern Mali in the chaos that followed a March 22 coup in the southern capital, Bamako.

But the jihadists have since forced the Tuareg fighters, who wanted an independent secular state, out of key positions as they seek to implement strict Islamic law.

MUJAO holds the city of Gao, while Ansar Dine has exerted its control in Timbuktu, whipping unmarried couples, smokers and drinkers and destroying ancient World Heritage shrines it considers idolatrous.

Both Islamist groups have stated ties to AQIM and other jihadist groups on the continent, raising fears that the vast region could become a safe haven for extremist groups.

AQIM has for years carried out attacks, kidnapped foreigners and been involved in drug and human trafficking in the Sahel.

The group is currently holding six French hostages -- two geologists kidnapped last November in northern Mali and four kidnapped in September 2010 from Niger.

There are also Swedish, Dutch and South African hostages taken last November in an attack on Timbuktu in which a German was killed.