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Updated: August 23, 2010 18:50 IST

Al-Qaeda group frees two Spanish aid workers in Mali

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Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. File photo: AP.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. File photo: AP.

Two Spanish aid workers kidnapped almost nine months ago by an al—Qaeda affiliate have been set free and were en route on Monday to the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, a Spanish official and a diplomatic source said.

The release happened just days after a Malian who was sentenced in Mauritainia for the kidnapping was extradited back to his home country. Al—Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, had demanded his return as a condition for the release of the two aid workers.

The two were due to arrive in Ouagadougou by mid—afternoon and were then continue on to Spain, said the official at a Western embassy who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

“They are free,” he said. “It’s done.”

In Madrid, an official in Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s office confirmed the release and said they are now in safe hands. The official gave no other details. Mr. Zapatero was scheduled to address reporters shortly.

Francesco Osan of the group Barcelona Accio Solidaria said it got confirmation of the release from Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega.

Mr. Osan told a news conference on Monday that the two aid workers will arrive back in Spain on Monday night.

Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta were kidnapped when their convoy of SUVs was attacked in Mauritania on November 29 while they were delivering supplies to poor villagers. They and a third colleague, Alicia Gamez, were taken to northern Mali, a remote desert area which has become one of the operating bases for AQIM. Ms. Gamez was released in March.

The non—governmental organization Barcelona Solidarity Action for whom the two work said it was treating the reports of the hostages’ release with guarded optimism until they are confirmed by the government.

Not long after the kidnapping, Mauritanian commandos led a raid in northern Mali where they seized Malian national Omar Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Hama, who goes by the alias Omar Sahraoui. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison by a Mauritanian judge for the kidnappings.

The embassy official said AQIM had demanded Sahraoui’s return as a condition of the release of the aid workers. He was extradited to Mali on August 15.

Mr. Vilalta is believed to have suffered gunshot wounds to the leg while trying to elude capture on the day of the kidnapping.

Mauritania, on Africa’s western coast, has been rocked by attacks by the radical Islamic group which has spread its tentacles across the vast desert encompassing swaths of Mali, Niger and Algeria. The terror group appears to be financing itself through a ‘kidnap economy’ and in recent years they have abducted Austrian, Swiss, Italian, French and Canadian nationals.

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