Cameroon frees Central African rebel chief in exchange for hostages

BRAZZAVILLE/BANGUI (Reuters) - Cameroon has freed a rebel leader from Central African Republic after a group of 26 hostages including a priest were released by his faction, Congo Republic’s president and a rebel spokesman said on Friday.

The Democratic Front of the Central African People (FDPC) had seized 15 Cameroonian and 10 Central African hostages in western Central African Republic over the past few months.

They abducted Polish Catholic priest Mateusz Dziedzic on Oct. 12 as part of the kidnapping strategy, which aimed to use the captives as bargaining chips for the release of their leader Abdoulaye Miskine, who was arrested in Cameroon last year.

The Congo Republic president, Denis Sassou N’Guesso, confirmed Miskine was free and in the capital Brazzaville.

“We will work together with (Miskine) to obtain security and stability in CAR,” he said at a ceremony transferring Dziedzic to Congo’s European Union mission.

Sassou N’Guesso has served as the main regional mediator on the crisis in Central African Republic, which has descended into inter-religious violence since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian country last year.

The FDPC is one of a number of armed groups that has fought the Central African government and other militants in an off-on conflict in the former French colony over the past decade.

It was briefly allied with Seleka. However, Miskine quarreled with Seleka commanders and fled to Cameroon. The FDPC confirmed Miskine, who is accused of war crimes by rights groups, was freed from prison on Thursday.

A spokesman for the Cameroonian Defense Ministry declined to comment on Miskine’s release. It had said in a statement on Wednesday that the hostages were freed in a military operation.

“I found peace in my heart. I also forgave my captors,” Dziedzic told the ceremony.

Additional reporting by Anne Mireille Nzouankeu in Yaounde; Writing by Emma Farge and Joe Bavier; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alison Williams