Swede held by Al-Qaeda in Mali since 2011 freed

An image grab released by Al-Jazeera television in 2012, shows Swede Johan Gustafsson (left), South African-Briton Stephen Malcom (centre),  and Dutch national Sjaak Rijke (right).
An image grab released by Al-Jazeera television in 2012, shows Swede Johan Gustafsson (left), South African-Briton Stephen Malcom (centre), and Dutch national Sjaak Rijke (right).PHOTO: AFP

STOCKHOLM (AFP) - A Swede who had been held hostage by Al-Qaeda in Mali since 2011 has been freed, the Swedish government said Monday (June 26), but the fate of a fellow hostage from South Africa remains unknown.

"It is with great pleasure that I can announce that Johan Gustafsson has been released and can return to Sweden," Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said in a statement, giving no details about how his release was secured.

Swedish newspapers Expressen and Aftonbladet reported shortly afterwards that a Swedish government plane carrying Gustafsson had landed at Stockholm's Arlanda airport and that he had been welcomed home by his family, but neither the government nor airport officials would confirm that information.

Gustafsson, 42, was abducted in Timbuktu, northern Mali, in November 2011 along with South African national Stephen McGown and Dutchman Sjaak Rijke.

Rijke was freed in April 2015 by French special forces.

The Swedish foreign ministry provided no details about McGown's fate.

Gustafsson was on a motorcycle trip from Sweden to South Africa when he was kidnapped.

He, Rijke and McGown were seized along with several other Westerners by a group of armed men while on the terrace of their hotel.

Rijke's wife managed to escape, but a German who tried to resist the abduction was killed.

Al-Qaeda's North African affiliate Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the kidnappings. It was among several jihadist groups that took control of Mali's north in 2012 before being ousted by a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.

"I've already spoken with Johan and he is doing well and is overwhelmed by everything going on," Wallstrom told Swedish Radio.

A South African charity appointed by the families to negotiate the release of Gustafsson and McGown said it had no news about McGown.

"We have no information... I don't think Stephen has been released," said Imtiaz Sooliman, head of Gift of the Givers.

The charity said in May 2017 that it was giving up its negotiating efforts after hitting a "dead end".

According to Swedish media reports, Gift of the Givers had been negotiating a ransom with the hostage-takers.

AQIM had released several videos of Gustafsson and McGown over the years, but very little has been known about the kidnappers' demands.

Gustafsson's family had repeatedly pleaded for his release in statements to the media, but on Monday his father Goran Gustafsson refused to comment on his release.

"I don't want to talk right now, I can't. You'll have to excuse me," he told news agency TT.

Several other Westerners have been kidnapped in Mali in recent years.

In January 2016, Swiss missionary Beatrice Stockly was kidnapped by AQIM, also in Timbuktu, after repeated threats from jihadists, and a proof of life video was released one year later.

Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti, a Colombian nun, was kidnapped in February of this year in southern Mali by armed men from an unidentified jihadist group, and her whereabouts remain unknown despite several arrests.

And Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, head of an NGO, was abducted in the northern Malian city of Gao in late 2016. No group has claimed responsibility for her disappearance.