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Al Qaeda affiliate releases aid workers

Associated Press / August 24, 2010

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OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Two Spanish aid workers kidnapped almost nine months ago by an Al Qaeda affiliate were freed yesterday in Mali after a multimillion-dollar ransom was reportedly paid.

The ransom deal was a sign of the terrorist group’s growing sophistication in bankrolling operations through kidnappings, analysts said.

Aid workers Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta were abducted in November when their convoy of 4-by-4s was attacked by gunmen on a stretch of road in Mauritania. They were taken to Mali, whose northern half is now one of the many stretches of remote desert where Al Qaeda of Islamic Maghreb has expanded.

Late yesterday afternoon, the pair stepped out of a helicopter that landed at the presidential palace in Burkina Faso.

Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that Spain had paid a multimillion-dollar ransom to secure the aid workers’ release. The government refused to comment.

Originally based in Algeria, the Al Qaeda group had limited reach until 2006, when the organization, then called the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, brokered a deal with Al Qaeda’s leadership in the Middle East, allowing them to become in essence a franchise of the larger terrorist network.

Since then they have abducted Austrian, Swiss, Italian, French, and Canadian nationals. Analysts say the majority were released after multimillion-dollar ransoms were paid.

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