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Al-Qaida Releases South African Held in Mali After 6 Years

  • Anita Powell

Malcolm McGowan, father of South African Stephen McGowan, who was kidnapped by al-Qaida from Timbuktu in 2011 and has been released and is back home, chats to Foreign Minister Nkoana-Mashabane after a media briefing in Pretoria, August 3, 2017.

A South African man held by al-Qaida in Mali since 2011 has been freed, the South African government said Thursday.

Stephen McGowan was the last of three foreign nationals abducted in Timbuktu in November 2011 to be freed.

The governments of Mali and South Africa worked together, along with NGO Gift of the Givers, to negotiate his release, but South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told a media briefing in Pretoria that no ransom was paid.

Imtiaz Sooliman, chairman and founder of Gift of the Givers, says McGowan was freed July 29 and is currently in a South African hospital, being treated for an infection.

Sooliman says the disaster relief charity -- which also works in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia and has secured the release of other hostages held by Islamist groups -- tracked down McGowan’s captors in 2015 and set up negotiations with their intermediaries. He said the South African government then completed the process, and that he did not know on what terms McGowan was released.

“I wouldn’t know if anybody paid a ransom, but that was a request,” he told VOA. “They initially had asked for 10 million euros, (($12 million)) then they asked for 5 million euros, (($6 million)), then they asked for 4 million euros, (($5 million)), then they ask for the exchange of prisoners and no ransom. Then they asked for ransom and exchange of prisoners, then thy asked for ransom again. They had various options…So in the end we really don’t know which option was used.”

He says that the charity does not support the mission of extremist groups and does not agree with paying ransoms or engaging in prisoner exchanges.

“We have a moral dilemma,” he said. “We cannot allow your person to stay forever in captivity because they are innocent. And unfortunately, if it means negotiating with terrorists to take out someone who is innocent, we will do that.”

“It’s very easy saying that when you’re not involved,” he said. “But when you see the anguish of a mother or a father or a wife, when they want their family members back, and if you put yourself in that same situation: would you say, if your child was taken away as a hostage, would you say, ‘I’m not going to negotiate with terrorists. It’s fine, you can keep my child.’”

Since his release, McGowan has reunited with his family.

"It was a big surprise when I saw Stephen walk through the door. When I hugged him, he felt as strong as ever," his father, Malcolm McGowan, told reporters.

The younger McGowan was abducted along with Swede Johan Gustafsson, who was freed in June, and Dutchman Sjaak Rijke, who was freed in April 2015 by French special forces.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, claimed responsibility for kidnapping the three foreigners, who were taken by a group of armed men from the terrace of their hotel along with Rijke's wife, who managed to escape, and a German who was killed while trying to resist abduction.

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