April 22, 2016 / 10:47 AM / 4 years ago

Red Cross workers freed after being held prisoner in Mali

DAKAR (Reuters) - Three Red Cross workers have been freed unharmed after being held prisoner for several days in northern Mali, the humanitarian organisation said on Friday.

“The best news we could get: our three colleagues in Mali are free, safe and sound,” Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said on Twitter.

The ICRC lost contact with four of its staff on Saturday as they were driving back to their base in the town of Kidal.

One of the four was found on Sunday and said the team had been accosted by a man on a motorcycle who demanded they follow him.

“They were detained by a community in northern Mali before being released this morning,” said Valery Mbaoh Nana, the ICRC’s spokesman in Mali’s capital Bamako.

He said he could give no further details for security reasons.

The Kidal region is home to a number of armed groups.

Islamist militants are still active in the area despite a 2013 French-led military intervention to drive them from the desert north. Among them are fighters linked to al Qaeda who have mounted deadly attacks in Mali and neighbouring states in the past year.

The incident involving the ICRC workers came a day after the group’s local guide was arrested by French soldiers from a regional anti-militant operation, the ICRC spokesman said.

Media reports had linked the workers’ disappearance to the Islamist militant group Ansar Dine, claiming the group had demanded the guide’s release in exchange for freeing the ICRC staff.

But Nana said the ICRC did not believe the four workers’ detention had been linked to the arrest and denied the organisation had struck a deal for their release.

“We have not received claims or specific requests. They have been released without conditions,” he said.

Reporting by Marine Pennetier; Editing by Joe Bavier and Andrew Roche

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