OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — The three Europeans who were freed after being held for the past 10 months by a jihadist group in north Mali landed Thursday in Burkina Faso, a mediator involved in the negotiations said.
Spaniards Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez del Rincon and Italian Rossella Urru were flown by helicopter to Gorom Gorom, some 300 kilometers north of Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, where they will next be transferred, said the official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. They will likely then fly back to their home countries.
A plane had been sent to Africa to get the freed hostages, said a Spanish ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with ministry rules.
The three aid workers 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.
The al-Qaida-linked cell 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.
It's unclear if a ransom was paid for Gonyalons, Rincon and Urru.
In neighboring Mauritania, however, a prison official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press said prisoner Mamina Ould Laguir was freed in exchange for the three hostages. Laguir was transferred out of the central prison in the capital where he has been since last December, after being arrested on suspicion of involvement in the kidnapping of the three aid workers in Algeria.
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.