Three European aid workers released in Mali after being kidnapped by an Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group were freed in exchange for three Islamists, a negotiator said yesterday.

“There was a compensation, there were releases for releases,” a member of the negotiation team told reporters, adding the hostages had boarded planes home after arriving in Burkina Faso earlier in the day.

The three – a Spanish man and woman, Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez Rincon, and an Italian woman, Rossella Urru – were described as “well”, although Mr Gonyalons had been deliberately shot and wounded by a captor.

“The man is wounded, there was a mujahideen (fighter) who fired at him deliberately, he is limping a little but it is OK,” he said. The previously unknown Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed responsibility for the kidnap in October 2011, saying it was part of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The group on Wednesday announced their release and said a ransom had been paid.

In May, MUJAO had demanded the release of two Sahrawis arrested by Mauritania for their role in the kidnapping, as well as €30 million for the hostages’ freedom, threatening to kill the Spanish man if their demands were not met.

“We do not know if any ransoms were paid... that is between them (the kidnappers) and the countries concerned,” the negotiator added.

The hostages were abducted from a Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, housing people from the disputed Western Saharan territory that abuts Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria.

In Nouakchott, online news agency Alakhbar reported that among Islamist prisoners exchanged for the hostages was a Sahrawi called Memine Ould Oufkir, one of those arrested in the wake of the kidnapping.

MUJAO said last week it freed three of seven Algerian diplomats taken during the Islamist seizure of the northern Mali city of Gao in March.

The group, along with the Islamist Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) and Tuareg separatist rebels, overran northern Mali following a March 22 coup in the southern capital of Bamako.

However, the jihadists have since forced the Tuareg fighters, who wanted an independent secular state, out of key positions as they seek to implement strict Islamic law.

MUJAO holds the city of Gao while Ansar Dine has exerted its control in Timbuktu, whipping unmarried couples, smokers and drinkers and destroying ancient World Heritage shrines it considers idolatrous.

Both Islamist groups have stated ties to AQIM and other jihadist groups on the continent, raising fears the vast region could become a safe haven for extremist groups.

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