World News

Spain says two Qaeda hostages on way to freedom

MADRID (Reuters) - Two Spanish hostages held by al Qaeda’s North African wing were on their way to freedom on Monday, the Spanish government said, ending a nearly nine-month kidnapping that became the longest in the Sahara desert.

Albert Vilalta and Roque Pascual were taken hostage by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), responsible for a string of kidnappings, while on a relief aid convoy through Mauritania last November.

“They are en route to freedom but we can’t make any more comment until they are 100 percent in safe hands,” a Spanish government official said.

The newspaper El Pais said the aid workers were traveling from their last hiding spot in the desert of Mali to the border of Burkina Faso, where Spanish government representatives expected to pick them up.

On Sunday, al Arabiya television said the release of the hostages was linked to Mauritania’s repatriation to Mali of a militant who had been convicted of the kidnapping of the two Spanish aid workers, along with a third who was freed in March.

Officials in Mauritania and Mali had declined to comment on whether the extradition of Omar Sid-Ahmed Ould Hamma, alias Omar Sahraoui, to his home country earlier this month was linked to efforts to free the remaining Spanish hostages.

AQIM has said that Spain is one of its targets because it is an ally of the United States and part of NATO.

Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Mark Heinrich