BAMAKO, Mali - Islamist rebels in north Mali on Wednesday released an Italian and two Spanish hostages who had been held since October, a spokesman with an allied group said.
The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO by its French acronym, released the hostages near the town of Gao, according to Sanda Abou Mohamed, a spokesman for an al-Qaeda-linked rebel group Ansar Dine.
Spaniards Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez de Rincon and Italian Urru Scarlett are aid workers who were kidnapped from a refugee camp in southern Algeria in October, Mohamed said. He said that the Algeria-based MUJAO was responsible for their kidnapping, and in May requested money for their release. It is unclear if a ransom was paid.
Millions of dollars reportedly have been paid in ransoms for other hostages held by Islamic groups in the Sahara Desert.
At least six Western hostages were killed between 2009 and 2011. All were held by al-Qaeda's African franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM.
The Spanish Foreign Ministry confirmed the two Spaniards were being freed. It said the handover was "on the verge" of being completed but delayed at the last minute by a sandstorm.
A plane has been sent to Africa to pick them up, said a ministry official. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with ministry rules.
Gonyalons worked for an NGO called Mundubat. Fernandez worked for the Association of Friends of the Saharawi People.
MUJAO is a breakaway from AQIM. Ansar Dine, led by a former Mali diplomat and one-time leader of a rebellion of the Tuareg people, is believed to have links to AQIM, which has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings, as well as the kidnappings of at least 50 foreigners.
Northern Mali has become a magnet for Islamist radicals since Ansar Dine and AQIM fighters drove out separatist Tuareg rebels who had seized northern Mali in late March. The two Islamist groups want to impose Shariah law in the region.