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Freed European hostages head back to Spain, Italy
By BRAHIMA OUEDRAOGO
Associated Press
2012-07-19 11:57 PM
The three Europeans who were freed after being held for the past 10 months by a jihadist group in north Mali headed back Thursday to their home countries of Spain and Italy, officials said.

Spaniards Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez del Rincon and Italian Rossella Urru touched down briefly on Thursday in the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou, after a stop off in Gorom Gorom, some 300 kilometers north of the capital, where they were given new clothes.

Smiling and looking well, the three were accompanied in Ouagadougou by two Burkina Faso mediators and secret service agents from Italy and Spain. They spoke to the media before they boarded jets to Spain and Italy.

"We just want to thank the government of Burkina Faso. Thank you so much," said Urru just after stepping off the military plane that brought them to Ouagadougou.

Gonyalons had a slight limp because of a bullet to his leg while in custody.

`'I thank the Burkina government for the liberation," Gonyalons said. "Liberation for liberation."

The three hostages were kidnapped from a refugee camp in southern Algeria last October. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJAO by its French acronym, freed them Wednesday near the town of Gao in Mali's distant north, according to Sanda Abdou Mohamed, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, a radical Islamic group allied with MUJAO which now controls northern Mali, including the city where the three were released. The hostages were not immediately able to leave Mali due to a sandstorm.

After taking the hostages in the Tindouf, Algeria refugee camp where they were working, MUJAO is believed to have moved them across the porous desert border separating Algeria from Mali, a country whose lawless north has become a base for al-Qaida's North African branch.

According to Gen. Gilbert Diendere, one of the mediators and a close security aid to Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore, the hostages were scattered for the past five months with the two women staying together and Gonyalons isolated.

When asked about their living conditions, Gonyalons said, "I cannot comment on that."

The al-Qaida North African branch has kidnapped over 50 Europeans since 2003 when it first began operating out of Mali and in recent years started contracting locals to grab foreigners, who then sell them to the al-Qaida branch, known as AQIM, or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Intelligence experts had initially thought that MUJAO was such a contractor.

MUJAO's hostage-taking indicates that this little-known group could be entering the kidnapping business and attempting to mimic the tactics of AQIM, which has bankrolled its operations through ransom money. Analysts say AQIM has been able to get on average $2 million per kidnapped foreigner. In the past, it has also negotiated prisoner swaps in exchange for hostages.

Diendere said that two members from MUJAO had been freed in exchange for the European hostages, and a third member of MUJAO would later be freed from Niger. He said he did not know if any ransoms were paid, as that was a matter between the governments and the kidnappers.

Northern Mali has become a magnet for Islamist radicals since Ansar Dine and AQIM fighters drove out separatist Tuareg rebels who had seized northern Mali in late March. The Islamists want to impose Shariah law in the region.

___

Associated Press writers Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali and Daniel Woolls in Madrid, Spain contributed to this report.

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