Spanish aid workers freed by Al-Qaeda return home

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 what it said was an audio statement it received 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 (local time) 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 at the airport.

"We were treated properly. We lived like they (the kidnappers) lived," 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 had to lean on a crutch for support.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the release was "very good news" and "puts an end to a terrorist action which should never have happened," he said.

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