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By Mathieu Bonkoungou
OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - One Italian and two Spanish hostages freed by their al Qaeda-linked captors in Mali arrived safely in neighbouring Burkina Faso on Thursday.
However the Burkina officer leading the operation said the release was only made possible by the release of two Islamists in jail in Mauritania as part of a deal with Mali's MUJWA, the al Qaeda splinter group which had been holding the hostages.
The three aid workers, kidnapped in Algeria last October, were dressed all in white as they got out of a military plane after it arrived at a base in the Burkina capital Ouagadougou.
"We would like to thank the work of Burkina people and the interest for us," Spaniard Enric Gonyalons told reporters. Ainhoa Fernandez and Rossella Urru, an Italian national, smiled for photographers but gave no statement.
"It was a release in exchange for a release," said General Gilbert Diendere, the officer who led the mission, adding that one of two Islamists freed in Mauritania had already been transferred to Mali.
He did not name the Islamists but Mauritanian media and an Islamist prisoner there said on Wednesday that Mamne Ould Oufkir, a suspect in the original kidnapping, had been freed.
The north of Mali is in the hands of local Islamist groups who first fought alongside and then outflanked Tuareg-led separatist rebels who routed government forces there in early April.
Diendere declined to comment on whether a ransom had also been paid to end the aid workers' captivity, one of a spate of hostage dramas in Africa's Sahel region.
Security experts say multi-million dollar ransom payments are usually made, though never confirmed, by authorities.
There has been no official comment from Madrid or Rome on the circumstances of the release of the aid workers, who were seized in a refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria.
The trio's departure from the Malian region of Gao, which is in the hands of various Islamist groups linked to al Qaeda, was delayed on Wednesday by a sandstorm that prevented aircraft sent by Burkina Faso from picking them up.
"It was the most difficult mission," said Diendere. "The weather was awful and we had to sleep outside in the pouring rain before being able to take off this morning."
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