Kidnapped Spanish aid workers freed
Two Spanish aid workers held by al Qaeda's North African wing were freed today, the Spanish government said, ending a kidnapping in the Sahara Desert that lasted nearly nine months.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said it seized Albert Vilalta and Roque Pascual while they were travelling through Mauritania with a relief aid convoy last November, the latest in a string of abductions claimed by the group.
"They are safe and sound after 268 days in the hands of their kidnappers and (after 268 days) of the Spanish government's concern and efforts to obtain their release," Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told a news conference.
He said relatives were travelling with a government representative to meet the two men, who were working with the Barcelona-Accio Solidario aid group when they were seized.
They are due to arrive in Barcelona tonight. A source close to the president's office in Burkina Faso, one of the countries whose border straddles the desert zone, said the hostages were due to be transferred by helicopter to the airport in its capital Ouagadougou before being taken home.
"This brings an end to an act of terrorism that should never have happened," Mr Zapatero said, without giving details of the men's release.
AQIM has said that Spain is one of its targets because it is an ally of the United States and part of Nato.
The release appeared to be linked to Mauritania's repatriation to Mali earlier this month of a militant convicted of the kidnapping of the two Spaniards, along with a third who was freed in March, a European security analyst said.
"There was a swap, though it is unclear if there was also a ransom paid," the analyst said on condition of anonymity.
Officials in Mauritania and Mali have declined to comment on whether the extradition of Omar Sid-Ahmed Ould Hamma, alias Omar Sahraoui, to his home country was linked to efforts to free the hostages.
Mali released four Islamist prisoners earlier this year in an apparent swap for French hostage Pierre Camatte, freed by AQIM in February. Mali was criticised for the move by regional neighbours Algeria, Mauritania and Niger.
Last month, AQIM killed a 78-year-old French hostage, Michel Germaneau, after a raid in the Sahara desert involving French troops failed to free him. The group, which grew out of the Salafist movement in Algeria and has since shifted south into the vast and lawless Sahel, also killed British captive Edwin Dyer last year after London refused to give in to its demands.
Security analysts believe the AQIM is less ideological than opportunistic - raising funds by ransoming hostages and getting involved in drug trafficking.
Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger are trying to improve their cooperation to counter AQIM, which analysts fear could pose a threat to oil and mineral investments in the region.