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 back home, South Africa’s government announced Thursday.
Stephen McGown, who was released on Saturday, 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 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.”
South Africa’s minister for international relations, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said the government does not pay ransom in hostage situations.
McGown’s release follows that of Swedish national Johan Gustafsson, who was freed in late June after being kidnapped 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.
In early July, 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, 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.
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!'”
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.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.