, Spain, Mar 11 – A Spanish aid worker released by Islamist militants in Mali returned home on Wednesday after a four-month kidnap ordeal, saying she had been well treated by her captors in the desert.
"I am happy to be home" but "need time to recuperate," a smiling Alicia Gamez said in a brief statement after stepping off a Spanish air force plane at Barcelona airport.
Dressed in jeans, sneakers, a pink shirt and a black jacket, she appeared in good health and showed no obvious signs of her ordeal.
"What I want to do now is to rest and, above all, to be with my family," said Gamez, 39, who was accompanied on the flight by her brother and Secretary of State for International Cooperation Soraya Rodriguez.
She appealed for the release of the two other hostages who were seized at the same time, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta.
"My happiness will be complete when Albert and Roque come home as well," she said.
The three Spanish workers for aid group Barcelona Accio Solidaria were kidnapped in Mauritania in late November, after which they were taken to northern Mali.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on December 8 claimed responsibility.
"I want to say that both are well, we have been well treated, with respect and well looked after, within the very hard limits of the desert," Gamez said.
The Spanish press reported several weeks ago that AQIM had demanded a ransom for the release of the three aid workers and the daily El Mundo said Madrid was in the process of paying five million dollars (3.7 million euro) in exchange for the hostages.
But Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega denied that a ransom had been paid.
She said there was "no objective reason" why Gamez was released while the two men were not.
"This sometimes happens in this type of kidnappings. They freed Alicia first, we would have liked them all to be released at the same time," she told a news conference Wednesday.
She later said the government had been receiving proof that the hostages were alive.
"We received cards, calls to the family, photographs and they received the medicines that they needed. So we were sure that they were alive," she told Spanish radio Cadena Ser.
Diplomatic sources in Mali said an Italian woman who was kidnapped along with her husband in Mauritania in December was still in Al-Qaeda\’s clutches, denying earlier reports that she too had been freed.
"It is only the Spanish hostage who was released. There was a small confusion, the Italian was not released," a diplomatic source said in Bamako after earlier announcing both had been freed.
Sources close to the negotiations said that the Italian woman, Philomene Kaboure, of Burkina Faso descent, had previously refused to be freed, wishing to remain with her Italian husband Sergio Cicala, 65.
"We are continuing discussions for her release," the diplomatic source added. "They are not the same groups, each group has its own conditions."
In the past few days at least two personal envoys sent by Burkina President Blaise Compaore have been on the ground in the Malian desert in a bid to win Kaboure\’s release.
"They did everything to secure the release of all the hostages but it didn\’t work. It was a humanitarian gesture from the kidnappers," said a Malian source close to the negotiations.
AQIM had previously demanded the release of Mauritanian prisoners for the safety and freedom of the Italian couple, giving a deadline of March 1, which has passed with no news.
But on March 4, Mauritanian Prime Minister Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdhaf said his government refused to negotiate with "terrorist groups" or to exchange the prisoners to secure the release of the hostages.
A sixth hostage, Frenchman Pierre Camatte, was freed on February 23 after Mali freed four Islamist prisoners demanded by Al-Qaeda.
The threat posed by terrorist groups in the Sahel is being taken very seriously after the death of British tourist Edwin Dyer in June 2009, killed by AQIM after six months in captivity when London refused to yield to blackmail by the Islamist combatants.