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Spanish al Qaeda hostages freed, expected home

MADRID/OUGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Two Spanish aid workers held by al Qaeda’s North African wing were freed on Monday, ending a kidnapping ordeal in the Sahara Desert that lasted nearly nine months.

A general view shows the road between Nouahibou and Nouakchott, where three Spanish aid workers were abducted from, December 3, 2009. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seized Albert Vilalta and Roque Pascual while they were traveling through Mauritania with a relief aid convoy last November, the latest in a string of abductions claimed by the group.

“We are happy, this is a big day for us,” Vilalta told reporters after they were transferred to the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou in a Burkinabe military helicopter.

A Reuters witness said the pair were smiling and appeared in good shape as they were welcomed by the Spanish ambassador.

Burkinabe officials said the two, who worked for the Barcelona-Accio Solidario aid group, would fly on to Barcelona after being received by Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, a key player in efforts to end earlier kidnapping dramas.

“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,” Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told a news conference in Madrid earlier on Monday.

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

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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 criticized for the move by regional neighbors 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.

Additional reporting by Itziar Reinlein, Richard Valdmanis in Dakar and Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou; editing by Angus MacSwan