PARIS — Three French aid workers held hostage by al-Qaida militants in Yemen have been freed with the help of the sultan of Oman after nearly six months in captivity, the French president’s office said Monday.
Kidnappers linked to al-Qaida’s offshoot in the region had demanded a $12 million in exchange for the three, and had threatened to kill the hostages if ransom wasn’t paid imminently, according to Yemeni officials.
A Yemeni mediator said the Omani government and a Yemeni businessman paid a ransom, though he gave no figure and the ransom couldn’t immediately be confirmed.
The hostage ordeal came amid an uprising against the 30-year reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh that has unraveled security in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country. Al-Qaida-linked militants have taken control of entire towns in the country’s restive south.
The aid group Triangle Generation Humanitaire said the workers were in good health. But the circumstances of their release remained murky.
The senior Yemeni tribal mediator said Oman and Yemeni tribesmen negotiated the release, and that the hostages were handed over to mediators one by one. He said a helicopter carried the hostages from the southern Yemeni city of Shabwa — a hotbed of Islamic militants — to Oman late Sunday.
The mediator spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. He didn’t give further details.
Authorities in Oman did not comment on the release or its government’s role. Oman never made a public comment about its mediation role in freeing three U.S. hikers detained in Iran.
French authorities insist the government doesn’t pay ransoms. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office issued a statement announcing the release early Monday, but provided no details of what happened.
Sarkozy “warmly thanks the sultan of Oman and the Oman authorities for their decisive help, as well as all those who contributed to this happy outcome,” the statement said, without elaborating.
The two women and one man from Triangle Generation Humanitaire were abducted May 28 in eastern Yemen’s Hadramawt province, which is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
“We know they are in good physical shape,” a director of the group, Patrick Verbruggen, told The Associated Press. “We are sharing a moment of happiness.”
He said he had no details about how they were released, whether a ransom was paid, or when they would return to France.
The aid group, based in Lyon, France, pulled out its expatriate employees from Yemen after the kidnapping, though Yemeni employees remain. The group works on projects to improve water supplies and farming infrastructure.
Abdu al-Janadi, a Yemeni government spokesman, told reporters on Sunday the hostages were held by al-Qaida militants in Shabwa and that the abductors threatened to kill the hostages if the Yemeni government didn’t pay a ransom by the end of the week.
Kidnappings are common in Yemen, where tribesmen use abductions to try to force concessions from the government, such as the release of fellow tribesmen in prison.
Yemeni government forces and allied tribesmen killed 10 militants in attacks around the country Sunday, security officials said. A visiting U.N. envoy met with Saleh to push for a solution to the country’s political crisis.