South African hostage in Mali released by al Qaeda amid ransom allegation

Phill Magakoe, AFP | Father of freed South African hostage Stephen McGown, Malcolm McGown (R) reacts as he holds hands with South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, during a press conference on August 3, 2017 in Pretoria.

A South African man is home after being freed by al Qaeda’s North Africa branch after six years in Mali, his government announced on Thursday. One report alleges a ransom was paid, but South Africa has denied that it makes such payments.


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.

McGown was kidnapped in 2011 at a hostel in Timbuktu, where he had been travelling 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."

South Africa's minister for international relations, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said the government does not pay ransom in hostage situations.

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

The New York Times, meanwhile, cited an anonymous retired European intelligence official alleging a payment of 3.5 million euros had on the contrary been negotiated to obtain McGown’s freedom.

His 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 Qaeda-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, a South African charity, 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," Gift of the Givers said in a May 17 statement.

But on Thursday, the group's founder Imtiaz Sooliman told reporters that it began negotiations for McGown's release before handing them over to the governments of South Africa and Mali.

The retired official cited by The New York Times, meanwhile, alleged that a payment for McGown’s release had been negotiated with Gift of the Givers Foundation as an intermediary and that the payment was “transferred by an undercover agent working for French security services in the Adrar des Iforas mountains, a massif in the deserts of northern Mali where Qaeda militants have held hostages.” The New York Times said Sooliman had not immediately responded to its requests for comment.

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 organisation 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 UN peacekeepers. Five regional countries   Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad   have now created a 5,000-strong multinational military force against the extremists.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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