ROME – Three European aid workers kidnapped 10 months ago in north Africa returned home late Thursday, with the Italian saying she wants to go back to work despite the risks.
Rossella Urru was embraced by her family and greeted by Italian Premier Mario Monti as she disembarked from a jet at Rome's Ciampino airport. Almost simultaneously, Spaniards Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez del Rincon touched down at the Torrejon air base in Madrid.
The three were kidnapped from a refugee camp in southern Algeria last October and then held in north Mali. The jihadist group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJAO by its French acronym, freed them Wednesday.
Urru told reporters she had been treated well during her ordeal and wanted to return to work. She acknowledged that aid work was dangerous and risky, "but I hope this doesn't stop me or other people."
En route home during a stop in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougu, the three spoke to the media, accompanied by two Burkina Faso mediators and secret service agents from Italy and Spain.
"We just want to thank the government of Burkina Faso. Thank you so much," Urru said just after stepping off the military plane that brought them to Ouagadougou.
Gonyalons had a slight limp because of a bullet to his leg while in custody.
"I thank the Burkina government for the liberation," Gonyalons said. "Liberation for liberation."
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.
According to Gen. Gilbert Diendere, one of the mediators and a close security aid to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the hostages were scattered for the past five months, with the two women staying together and Gonyalons isolated.
When asked about their living conditions, Gonyalons said, "I cannot comment on that."
The al-Qaida North African branch has kidnapped more than 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.
Diendere said that two members from MUJAO had been freed in exchange for the European hostages, and a third member of MUJAO would later be freed from Niger. He said he did not know if any ransoms were paid, as that was a matter between the governments and the kidnappers.
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.
Brahima Ouedraogo reported from Ouagadougou. Associated Press writers Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali, and Daniel Woolls and Harold Heckle in Madrid, Spain, contributed to this report.