An al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group based in northern Mali said on Wednesday it had freed three European hostages who were kidnapped in western Algeria in October.
“Consider them freed, because our conditions were respected,” said Mohamed Ould Hicham, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
He said a ransom had been paid for the three aid workers — a Spanish man and woman and an Italian woman — referring to it as a “debt,” but he would not be drawn on the amount.
“The hostages were freed not far from Gao [northeastern Mali], we handed them to a delegation from Burkina Faso. They are currently with the Burkinabes,” Hicham said.
This was confirmed by a military source in Burkina Faso, which is often involved in mediation for hostage releases. The Burkinabe delegation was to return early yesterday with the hostages to Ouagadougou, the source said.
Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi confirmed the release of the Italian woman Rossella Urru, describing it as “beautiful news.” Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti expressed his “great joy.”
In Madrid, a spokesman for the foreign minister said: “The liberation process is almost finished, it was delayed by a sandstorm ... A plane was sent to bring home the two Spaniards.”
They are Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez Rincon.
The hostages were abducted from a Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria. Sahrawis are people from the disputed Western Saharan territory that abutts Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria.
The previously unknown group MUJAO claimed responsibility, presenting themselves as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In May, MUJAO demanded the release of two Sahrawis arrested by Mauritania for their role in the kidnapping, as well as 30 million euros (US$36.8 million) in ransom.
They threatened to kill the Spanish man if their demands were not met.
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 last week said they had freed three of seven Algerian diplomats kidnapped during the takeover of Gao in late March.