Mali - Spain

Spanish Al-Qaeda hostages released in Mali

AFP/HO/SITE Intelligence Group

Two Spanish aid workers who were held hostage by Al-Qaeda in Mali since November have been freed. The two men were reportedly released around noon on Sunday and went toward the Burkina Faso border where they were met by Spanish representatives and flown by helicopter to the capital, Ouagadougou.

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Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez confirmed that the two men had been freed.

"Albert Vilalta and Roque Pasqual are free. They have been freed after spending 268 days in the hands of their kidnappers," he said in a brief televised statement.

"It has been nine months of suffering for them and their families, days of concern and activity by the government, which stepped up the activities of its political, diplomatic and intelligence services to secure their release."

Vilalta and Pascual, who had been working for the NGO Accio Solidaria, were kidnapped in November along with another Spaniard in Mauritania, north of the capital Nouakchott. Alicia Gamez was freed in March.

The release of the two men comes after last week's transfer of Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma, the Aqim-affiliated mastermind of their kidnapping, from Mauritania to Mali.

Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo reported that the Spanish government also paid a 3.8 million euro ransom.

Francesco Osan, director of Accio Solidaria, said the two men would arrive by plane in Barcelona Monday night.

Different branches of Aqim have taken hostages and executed two in recent months, including French aid worker

Michel Germaneau

in July.

Relations between the neighbouring countries have been strained, with Mauritania accusing Mali of being soft on Aqim after it released four prisoners in exchange for French hostage Pierre Camatte in February.

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