Al Qaeda's North African wing has freed two Spanish aid workers held hostage for nine months in the Sahara desert. The Spanish government has refused to confirm it paid a multi-million euro ransom for them.
Armed captors held Pascual (bottom r), Vilalta (bottom l), and Gamez (bottom center)
Two Spanish aid workers kidnapped by al Qaeda's North African wing were released on Monday, the Spanish government has confirmed.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seized Albert Vilalta and Roque Pascual in Mauritania last November.
"They are safe and sound after 268 days in the hands of their kidnappers and of the Spanish government's concern and efforts to obtain their release," Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told reporters on Monday.
Zapatero declined to comment on whether Spain had paid a ransom to AQIM. A Spanish air force plane is carrying government officials and family members to meet the two men in the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou. They are due to arrive back in Barcelona on Monday evening.
Vilalta and Pascual were captured as their relief convoy was returning to the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. AQIM also abducted a woman, Alicia Gamez, and took the three to northern Mali. Gamez was released in March.
Spanish PM Zapatero described the kidnapping as "an act of terrorism"
Burkina Faso is believed to have had an important mediating role in negotiations between Spain and the kidnappers. The Spanish government paid a ransom of 3.8 million euros ($4.8 million dollars) to secure the hostages' freedom, according to daily newspaper El Mundo.
Mauritanian officials refused to comment on reports their release was linked to Mauritania's repatriation to Mali of an al Qaeda collaborator earlier in August. Omar Sid-Ahmed Ould Hamma had been sentenced in Mauritania, but was then extradited to Mali, who freed him.
AQIM is considered a more opportunistic than ideological group, raising funds by ransoming hostages and drug trafficking. The al Qaeda branch has named Spain as a target because it is an ally of the United States and a member of NATO.
In July, AQIM killed French hostage Michel Germaneau, after French troops failed in their efforts to rescue the 78-year-old.
Author: Thomas Sheldrick (Reuters/dpa)
Editor: Rob Turner