Two Spanish aid workers freed by al-Qaeda’s North African branch returned home yesterday after a nine-month hostage ordeal in the Sahara, and said they were well-treated by their captors.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said it agreed to free the two after some of its demands were met, the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported, quoting an audio statement it said was from the group.
The group did not give details. But Spanish newspapers reported that a ransom of several million euros was paid, and hours before the hostages’ release the mastermind behind the kidnapping was freed in Mali, according to a member of his family.
Albert Vilalta, 35, and Roque Pascual, 50, who worked for Catalan aid group Accio Solidaria, were seized north of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on Nov. 29 last year along with a third Spaniard, 39-year-old Alicia Gamez, who was freed in March.
They were handed over to the AQIM, which held them in Mali.
Following their release on Sunday, they were flown to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. They arrived at Barcelona’s El Prat airport at around 1:20am on a Spanish military plane from Ouagadougou, accompanied by Spanish Secretary of State for Cooperation Soraya Rodriguez, and were greeted by family members and regional officials.
“It is very important day for us, it was a hard nine months for us being held hostage, and now we are free, I am very happy and very emotional,” Vilalta said.
“We were treated properly within the very, very hard conditions of life in the desert,” he said. “We lived like they [the kidnappers] lived, ate what they ate, slept like they did,” he said.
“We know that the Spanish government has made a major diplomatic effort with all governments in the region. We are very proud of our government,”said Vilalta, who walked with the aid of a crutch due to a leg injury he suffered while held captive.
Their release follows the Aug. 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.
A member of his family and a regional mediator said late on Monday that Hamma, who has strong ties to AQIM although is not a member of the group, was freed shortly before the hostages were released.
El Mundo and ABC newspapers reported on Monday that the pair’s release was the result of Hamma’s transfer and a payment by the Spanish government, which El Mundo put at 3.8 million euros (US$4.8 million) and ABC at between 5 million and 10 million euros.