March 12, 2010 / 8:40 AM / in 8 years

Al Qaeda demands ransom, one Spanish hostage freed

MADRID (Reuters) - Al Qaeda is seeking a $5 million (3.3 million pound) ransom and the release of imprisoned Islamist fighters as conditions to free two Spanish hostages kidnapped in Mauritania, newspaper El Pais said Friday, citing sources familiar with the negotiations.

El Pais published an exclusive statement from the Islamist fighter group in which it asked the Spanish government to meet its “legitimate demands” following the release of a third Spanish aid worker, Alicia Gamez, earlier this week.

The communiqué did not specify what the demands were, but El Pais quoted sources familiar with the negotiations saying the group was seeking a ransom of around $5 million, as well as the release of Islamists held in Mauritania’s capital, Nouackchott.

Gamez was freed in Mali because she had converted to Islam and her health was delicate, the statement said.

Albert Vilalta and Roque Pascual, Gamez’s companions on an aid convoy seized in northern Mauritania in November, are still being held by the group, which Spain has said was probably al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The group is also holding an Italian couple.

AQIM reiterated that Spain was one of its targets because it was an ally of the United States and part of NATO.

“This war does not distinguish between civilians and militants ... We propose paying Spain and its citizens with the same currency,” the statement was quoted as saying.

The group emerged in 2007 from the Salafist GSPC movement which battled Algerian security forces during the 1990s. It has waged a campaign of suicide bombings and ambushes in Algeria but in the past few years has shifted part of its activities south to the Sahara desert.

Last year it killed a British hostage and analysts say it hopes to secure multi-million dollar ransoms to help achieve its goals.

Reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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