Aid workers kidnapped in Niger freed: NGOs
NIAMEY, Niger (UPDATED) - Five African aid workers who were abducted in Niger in mid-October have been freed alive, while a sixth has died after being shot by the Al-Qaeda-linked kidnappers, the workers and their employers said Saturday.
Five Niger nationals "were freed today and are currently in Niger," while their colleague Aime Soulembaye from Chad has "died from his wounds," Niger's Befen and Chad's Alerte-Sante aid agencies said in a statement.
The groups did not specify how the aid workers were freed.
One of the hostages said the kidnapping was carried out by the armed Islamist group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the Al-Qaeda-backed groups that have seized control of the north in neighbouring Mali.
"We were kidnapped by people from MUJAO. They thought there was a white person with us," the freed hostage told AFP by phone from the Niger-Mali border.
"We were released not far from the border, and we walked," he added.
"Our Chadian friend died from his wounds. He was in a very bad condition."
The workers were kidnapped by gunmen on October 14 in southeast Niger.
The aid groups said Soulembaye had been shot by the kidnappers during the abduction.
His death is "an unjustifiable and incomprehensible tragedy for the humanitarian world", they said.
Security sources in Niger and Mali confirmed the five hostages had been freed at the two countries' border.
The kidnappers had been targeting an Italian anthropologist who was working for aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a local official in the Niger town of Dakoro said shortly after the abduction.
Mali was plunged into chaos by a March 22 coup that ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure, creating a power vacuum that enabled several Al-Qaeda-linked groups including MUJAO to seize control of the country's vast desert north.
Concerned that the desert area the size of France could become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda-linked groups, Mali's neighbours and the West are keen to drive the Islamists out.
In Mali, experts from the African Union, European Union and west African bloc ECOWAS are holding a one-week conference to plan a military intervention aimed at reclaiming the north.
ECOWAS wants to deploy a regional force of over 3,000 troops to Mali. The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on October 12 preparing for the deployment and giving ECOWAS 45 days to firm up its plans.
Envoys from another Islamist group occupying northern Mali, Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), were due to hold peace talks Saturday in Algeria and Burkina Faso. - Agence France-Presse