Freed men speak out on kid­nap­ping

North Bay Nugget - - WORLD NEWS - KRISTA MAHR AND JAN M. OLSEN

JO­HAN­NES­BURG — two men re­leased from al-Qaida cap­tiv­ity af­ter six years in north­ern Mali made their first pub­lic ap­pear­ances thurs­day, re­count­ing their or­deals and say­ing they were not clear whether any ran­som was paid for their free­dom.

“i think it’s wrong to pay ran­soms,” 42-year-old Johan gustafs­son, who was freed in June, told re­porters in swe­den. “i hope they let me out be­cause they were tired of me.” swe­den has in­sisted it never paid any ran­som and that his re­lease was ob­tained through ne­go­ti­a­tions.

gustafs­son and 42-year-old stephen Mcgown were 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 told re­porters in south africa he didn’t know whether any ran­som was paid for his re­lease in late July. south africa’s gov­ern­ment has said it paid no ran­som. he said he was well-treated dur­ing his long years in the desert, but “you al­ways knew you were a pris­oner.”

Mcgown also said he found out about his mother’s death just min­utes be­fore he ar­rived home in south africa. his mother died in May.

dutch­man sjaak ri­jke also was seized with gustafs­son and Mcgown in tim­buktu but was res­cued by French forces in april 2015. a fel­low ger­man trav­eller was killed dur­ing the kid­nap­ping.

im­tiaz sooli­man, the founder of the south african aid or­ga­ni­za­tion gift of the givers Foun­da­tion, which helped me­di­ate Mcgown’s re­lease, said he didn’t know whether any ran­som was paid or any pris­on­ers ex­changed for the men’s re­lease. sooli­man said the ex­trem­ists’ ini­tial de­mands started at $14 mil­lion per cap­tive.

When asked how they coped dur­ing their long years in the desert with their cap­tors, gustafs­son said he con­verted to is­lam “to save my life.” he said flee­ing the ex­trem­ists had been “out of the ques­tion.” he had been on a mo­tor­cy­cle tour of africa when he was seized.

Mcgown, who said he also con­verted to is­lam, said his cap­tors gave him clothes, food and med­i­ca­tion.

“i did my best to see the best in a bad sit­u­a­tion,” he said.

VILHELM STOCKSTAD/GETTY IMAGES

Johan Gustafs­son, who was held by al-Qaida mil­i­tants in Mali for six years, speaks at a press con­fer­ence in Stock­holm on Thurs­day.

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