By Walid Ramzi
After more than nine months in captivity, three European aid workers kidnapped in a Sahrawi refugee camp are on their way back home. Mali-based al-Qaeda splinter group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) made the announcement on Wednesday (July 18th).
“Consider them freed, because our conditions were respected,” MUJAO leader Mohamed Ould Hicham told AFP.
The Tindouf hostages were “freed not far from Gao”, he added. “We handed them to a delegation from Burkina Faso,” Ould Hicham said.
The MUJAO demanded 30 million euros for Spaniards Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez Rincon and Italian Rossella Urru. The terror group also asked for the release of two Sahrawis arrested by Mauritania for their role in the kidnapping.
They threatened to kill the Spanish man if their demands were not met.
“The liberation process is almost finished, it was delayed by a sandstorm,” a Spanish foreign ministry spokesman said in Madrid. “A plane was sent to bring home the two Spaniards.”
The news came three days after Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci confirmed the release of three of the seven Algerian diplomats kidnapped more than three months ago in northern Mali.
The former hostages are back on Algerian soil, Medelci said at a July 15th joint press conference with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius in Algiers.
Citing “security reasons”, the minister did not discuss the other four diplomats still held by terrorists. “We hope to see them all return to the country,” he said.
Medelci did not give details on how the hostages were freed or disclose their names.
MUJAO spokesman Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui announced the move on Thursday (July 13th) without specifying when the hostages were released or whether a ransom had been paid.
The armed group held the diplomats in different locations to ensure all would not be released at the same time.
The Algerian consul and six colleagues were seized April 5th in Gao. In exchange for their safe return, the MUJAO demanded the release of Islamists imprisoned in Algeria and a ransom of 15 million euros.
The terror group also captured an Algerian businessman who had taken shelter in the consulate. He was freed earlier.
To broker the release of its diplomats, Algeria formed a delegation that included military personnel with connections to the elders of the Touareg tribes. It also relied heavily on Ansar al-Din leaders. The Touareg Islamist armed group had sent a delegation to Algeria last month.
There are conflicting reports about the fate of the four remaining hostages.
Algeria’s chief diplomat refrained from making comments, while the MUJAO denied releasing them. The terrorist group said that the consul and three staff members were still held in Gao.
Algeria refused to pay any ransom or to release al-Qaeda leaders, El Khabar reported. The diplomats were freed after intense pressure from the elders and tribal sheikhs in Azawad after Algeria threatened to close the border, according to the Algerian daily.
The authorities opened a probe into security gaps that led to the capture of the diplomats in Gao. Investigators heard the testimonies of the three former hostages about the details of the storming of the consulate.