Islamist rebel group releases 3 hostages

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BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — A helicopter was dispatched to Mali on Wednesday to retrieve three European hostages held for the past 10 months by a jihadist group, according to the governments of Italy and Spain and a military official in Burkina Faso, which sent the copter.

The hostages, who were not immediately able to leave due to a sandstorm, were freed in a prisoner exchange, a prison official in neighboring Mauritania who requested anonymity told The Associated Press.

Spaniards Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez del Rincon and Italian Rossella Urru are aid workers who were kidnapped from a refugee camp in southern Algeria last October. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJAO by its French acronym, was responsible for their kidnapping. They were freed near the town of Gao in Mali's distant north, according to Sanda Abdou Mohamed, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, a radical Islamic group allied with MUJAO which now controls northern Mali, including the city where the three were released.

A soldier at a military base in Ouagadougou, from where the helicopter was dispatched, confirmed that the aircraft was heading to retrieve the three hostages, whose freedom was negotiated by Burkina's president. In Gao, residents said that a violent sandstorm had engulfed the city late Wednesday night and it was unclear if the helicopter had been able to land.

Mohamed said that "there is nothing to worry about and all is in order," when asked if the hostages' transfer to Burkina had been delayed due to the inclement weather. He declined to confirm if the three had left Mali en route for Burkina.

In Rome, Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi confirmed Urru's release, calling it "great news" and lauding her "courage and heroism." The Spanish Foreign Ministry confirmed the two Spaniards were being freed. It said the handover was "on the verge" of being completed but delayed at the last minute by the sandstorm. A plane has been sent to Africa to pick them up, said a ministry official. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with ministry rules.

After taking the hostages in the Tindouf, Algeria refugee camp where they were working, MUJAO is believed to have moved them across the porous desert border separating Algeria from Mali, a country whose lawless north has become a base for al-Qaida's North African branch.

The al-Qaida-linked cell has kidnapped over 50 Europeans since 2003 when it first began operating out of Mali and in recent years started contracting locals to grab foreigners, who then sell them to the al-Qaida branch, known as AQIM, or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Intelligence experts had initially thought that MUJAO was such a contractor.

MUJAO's hostage-taking indicates that this little-known group could be entering the kidnapping business and attempting to mimic the tactics of AQIM, which has bankrolled its operations through ransom money. Analysts say AQIM has been able to get on average $2 million per kidnapped foreigner. In the past, it has also negotiated prisoner swaps in exchange for hostages.

It's unclear if a ransom was paid for Gonyalons, Rincon and Urru.

In neighboring Mauritania, however, a prison official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press said prisoner Mamina Ould Laguir was freed in exchange for the three hostages. Laguir was transferred out of the central prison in the capital where he has been since last December, after being arrested on suspicion of involvement in the kidnapping of the three aid workers in Algeria.

Northern Mali has become a magnet for Islamist radicals since Ansar Dine and AQIM fighters drove out separatist Tuareg rebels who had seized northern Mali in late March. The Islamists want to impose Shariah law in the region.

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Mohamed contributed from Nouakchott, Mauritania. Associated Press writers Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Daniel Woolls in Madrid, Spain and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.

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