Page last updated at 19:04 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 20:04 UK

Al-Qaeda frees abducted Italian couple in Mali

A photograph released by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb allegedly showing Sergio Cicala and his wife, Philomene Kabouree (30 December 2009)
In December, AQIM published a picture purportedly of Mr Cicala and his wife

An Italian couple who were being held hostage in the west African country of Mali by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have been released.

Local officials said Sergio Cicala and Philomene Kaboure were picked up by an army patrol in the eastern Gao region.

Italy's foreign minister said they were "in the hands of Malian authorities" and were being taken to a "safe place".

Mr Cicala and Mrs Kaboure - who is also a citizen of Burkina Faso - were seized in December in neighbouring Mauritania.

The married couple had been driving past the eastern town of Kobenni on 18 December - en route to Burkina Faso to see Mrs Kaboure's 12-year-old son - when they were stopped by gunmen.

'Intense diplomatic work'

At the end of December, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) published a picture on the internet of a grey-haired man, identified as Mr Cicala, kneeling on a rug in the desert next to a woman. The woman was named as his wife, but her face was obscured.


AQIM had demanded in February that Mali's government free imprisoned militants before 1 March in exchange for the couple.

Shortly before the deadline expired, Mr Cicala urged Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to intervene in a purported audio message posted on the internet.

AQIM members in Mali are also believed to be holding two Spanish hostages who were abducted shortly before Mr Cicala and Mrs Kaboure. A French hostage, Pierre Camatte, was released in February, days after four militants were released from jail in Mali.

In Rome, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the Italians' release had been the "fruit of intense diplomatic work that led authorities in Mali to take decisive actions to reach this solution".

"We had to work for many months on very complex political and diplomatic negotiations," he told state television.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged in early 2007, after a feared militant group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), aligned itself with Osama Bin Laden's international network.

It has waged a campaign of suicide bomb attacks and ambushes in Algeria, and in recent years has become more active in the Sahara.

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