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Swiss hostage held by al Qaeda in Sahara freed - Mali

12/07/2009 - 18:26

By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's North African wing has freed a Swiss hostage, the last remaining Westerner the group had been holding in the Sahara, Mali said on Sunday.

"We can confirm that the Swiss (hostage) has been freed," Seydou Cissouma, a spokesman for Mali's president, told Reuters.

The government gave no details of the circumstances surrounding the release but Swiss radio reported the hostage was freed after negotiations and no ransom payment had been made.

Werner Greiner was captured in late January with three other Westerners while attending a music festival near the Niger-Mali border. Two women in the group were later freed before Edwin Dyer, a British man, was executed by the Islamists in May.

Talks on Greiner's release had been under way since the killing of the Briton. But they took place amid clashes between Malian security forces and the Islamists that killed dozens in the remote desert in the north of Mali.

Greiner was handed over to Malian authorities in the remote north on Saturday, the authorities said.

"This release brings to an end the process of returning the foreign hostages held in the Sahel-Sahara region to their families," according to a government statement read on state radio on Sunday.

The statement thanked the Swiss government for its understanding and patience and noted efforts by community leaders in Mali's remote north but gave no details on how or why the Swiss was freed.

Greiner will meet Mali's president on Monday before returning home, a security source told Reuters.

Swiss radio reported that Greiner was in good health, but was exhausted and it was not sure when he would return to Switzerland.

"NO RANSOM"

The hostage-taking has brought into focus the threat posed by the North Africa branch of al Qaeda, which is known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and emerged out of the Algerian Islamist movement, the GSPC.

AQIM operates across a vast stretch of weakly governed states where traffickers, rebels and bandits have long roamed. Analysts say the threat posed by the group is based as much on a mix of criminality and opportunism as hard-line Islamism.

Although there is seldom any official confirmation, analysts say previous incidents involving Westerners taken hostage in the Sahara have been resolved by the payment of ransoms, which can earn the militants millions of dollars.

African leaders condemned the payment of such ransoms at a summit earlier this month, saying the practice should be made illegal as the money is used by the armed groups to fund violence.

"The official line is that no ransom was paid and his release was secured solely through negotiations," Swiss radio reported on Sunday.

(Additional reporting by Katie Reid in Zurich; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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