Barcelona: Two Spanish aid workers freed by Al-Qaeda's North African branch returned home on Tuesday after a nine-month hostage ordeal in the Sahara, and said they were well-treated by their captors.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said it agreed to free the two after some of its demands were met, the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported, quoting an audio statement it said was from the group.
The group did not give details. But Spanish newspapers reported that a ransom of several million euros was paid, and hours before the hostages' release the mastermind behind the kidnapping was freed in Mali, according to a member of his family.
Albert Vilalta, 35, and Roque Pascual, 50, who worked for Catalan aid group Accio Solidaria, were seized north of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on November 29 along with a third Spaniard, 39-year-old Alicia Gamez, who was freed in March.
They were handed over to the AQIM, which held them in Mali.
Following their release on Sunday, they were flown to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, from Mali.
They arrived at Barcelona's El Prat airport at around 1:20am (2320 GMT Monday) on a Spanish military plane from Ouagadougou, accompanied by Spanish Secretary of State for Cooperation Soraya Rodriguez, and were greeted by family members and regional officials.
"It is very important day for us, it was a hard nine months for us being held hostage, and now we are free, I am very happy and very emotional," Vilalta said in a brief statement.
"We were treated properly within the very, very hard conditions of life in the desert," he said. "We lived like they (the kidnappers) lived, ate what they ate, slept like they did," he said.
"We know that the Spanish government has made a major diplomatic effort with all governments in the region. We are very proud of our government," added Vilalta, who walked with the aid of a crutch due to a leg injury he suffered while held captive.
Pascual also thanked the government for its "patience" and all those who helped in a "very long, very complicated process."
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Monday the release was "very good news" and "puts an end to a terrorist action which should never have happened."
Their release follows the August 16 transfer from Mauritania to Mali of the kidnap mastermind, Malian national Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma, who had been jailed for 12 years by a Mauritanian court.
A member of his family and a regional mediator said late on Monday that Hamma, who has strong ties to AQIM although is not a member of the group, was freed shortly before the hostages were released.
Spanish dailies El Mundo and ABC both reported on Monday that the hostages' release was the result of Hamma's transfer and a payment by the Spanish government which El Mundo put at 3.8 million euros (4.8 million dollars) and ABC at between 5.0 million and 10 million.
Zapatero said the government had "stepped up the activities of its political, diplomatic and intelligence services to secure their release," but made no mention of any ransom.
The AQIM statement, as released by El Pais on its website, said that "Thanks to God, the mujahedeen have found a positive solution to the issue of the Spanish hostages Albert Vilalta and Roque Pascual, which ended on Sunday ... with their release after some of our demands were met."
It added that the release "is a lesson for the French secret service to take into consideration in the future," referring to a French-Mauritanian raid in Mali last month that failed to rescue a French hostage and in which seven AQIM members were killed.
"They had the chance to act responsibly and use their heads with the mujahedeen and avoid the madness and anger that led to the deaths of their citizens...
"Because Christian jails are filled with thousands of innocent Muslim brothers, and the Muslim community has to ask hard and every way possible for their liberation by all possible means", said the statement, which El Pais translated from Arabic to Spanish.
The two Spaniards were being held by an AQIM cell led by Algeria's Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who paid Hamma to kidnap them.
While Belmokhtar is considered more a businessman than a religious fanatic, he is believed to be under pressure from a radical branch of AQIM led by another Algerian, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid.
Zeid has overseen the deaths of two Western hostages, Briton Edwin Dyer and Frenchman Michel Germaneau. The latter was slain in the aftermath of the Franco-Mauritanian raid to free him, in which seven of Zeid's men were killed.
He is believed to have been demanding the execution of the Spaniards in retaliation for the July 22 military operation.
First Published: Tuesday, August 24, 2010, 12:50