Al-Qaida releases South African held in Mali after 6 years

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Al-Qaida's North Africa branch has freed a South African man who was held hostage for six years in Mali and he is now home, South Africa's government announced Thursday, denying it had paid any ransom.

Stephen McGown, who was released on July 25, was the longest-held of a number of foreigners seized by Islamic extremists in Mali, where several armed groups roam the West African country's north. The extremists have made a fortune over the last decade abducting foreigners in the vast Sahel region and demanding enormous ransoms for their release.

South Africa's minister for international relations, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said the government does not pay ransom in hostage situations. But South African aid organization Gift of the Givers Foundation, which helped mediate McGown's release, told The Associated Press that its representative spoke on several occasions with an al-Qaida "intermediary" in Mali about the extremists' demands for several million dollars.

Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman said he was unaware what if any payment was made in exchange for McGown's freedom, as the group was not involved in the final stage.

"I'm ecstatic. It doesn't matter how he came out. He came out," Sooliman said.

McGown was kidnapped in 2011 at a hostel in Timbuktu, where he had been traveling as a tourist. He also has British citizenship.

"It was a big surprise when Stephen walked through the door," his father, Malcolm, told reporters. "He felt as sound and as strong as before."

McGown's release follows that of Swedish national Johan Gustafsson, who was freed in late June after being kidnapped along with McGown in November 2011. Swedish officials denied that a ransom had been paid, as other European governments have done to secure the release of their citizens in the Sahel. A Dutch tourist seized in the same abduction was freed in a French raid in 2015.

In early July, the 42-year-old McGown was included in a proof-of-life video released by the al-Qaida-linked Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen group in Mali. The video showed six foreign hostages shortly before French President Emmanuel Macron arrived for an anti-terror summit.

"No genuine negotiations have begun to rescue your children," a narrator of the video said.

Gift of the Givers had tried to secure the release of McGown and Gustafsson since 2015, sending a negotiator into remote parts of Mali and Niger. "We have reached a dead end," the group said in a May 17 statement. Sooliman said the group handed over negotiations to the governments of South Africa and Mali.

Brian Dube, spokesman for the Ministry of State Security, told the AP that Mali's government, non-governmental groups and other individuals were involved in negotiations but didn't give details. "We can confirm that he has been released without any conditions whatsoever," Dube said.

In May, McGown's mother, Beverley McGown, died after an illness after waiting in vain for years for her son to be freed. McGown's father on Thursday told reporters his son "will pick himself up" and rejoin life at home after the loss.

McGown's wife, Catherine, described their first exchange on reuniting: "He looked at me and said, 'Wow, your hair's grown!' I said, 'Your hair's longer than mine now!'"

Dube, the Ministry of State Security spokesman, didn't give details about the conditions of McGown's captivity but said he was "in good health, his mind is sharp and he was looked after well." He has had multiple medical checkups and has been told to rest, Dube said.

Extremists are still believed to be holding a Colombian nun taken from Mali, an Australian doctor and a Romanian man seized at different times in Burkina Faso, and an American who was working with a nonprofit organization in Niger.

Islamic extremists seized control of Mali's north in 2012. While they were forced out of strongholds a year later by a French-led military intervention, jihadists continue to attack Malian and French soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers. Five regional countries — Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad — have now created a 5,000-strong multinational military force against the extremists.

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Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.