Three French hostages kidnapped by Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen more than five months ago were on their way home on Monday after being freed on payment of a ransom, tribal sources and correspondents said.
“We, the three of us, are very thankful to his majesty Sultan Qaboos of Oman for his involvement and all the efforts deployed to lead us to freedom and we are very grateful for the great hospitality we have had during our stay in Oman,” one of the hostages told reporters on his arrival in Oman.
“We are very happy to go back to our families and to be finally free,” he said reading out from a statement.
The trio — two women and one man — arrived at the Al-Seeb airbase near Muscat on an Omani military plane midday (0800 GMT) Monday, gave a brief statement to the press and then boarded a French plane to Paris. They have not been identified.
The former hostages were greeted at the military airbase by France’s ambassador to Oman, Malika Berak who said the French citizens “are healthy” and thanked Sultan Qaboos for his “efforts” in securing their release.
The three aid workers had flown in from the Omani city of Salalah, about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) south of the capital and near the border with Yemen where they had been held captive, a tribal official involved in their release told AFP.
The male hostage sported a beard and one of the women was wearing a skirt while the other wore pants.
A Yemeni businessman, Ahmed al-Souraimeh Ferid Ben, who was exiled to Oman in the 1990s and who worked for the hostages’ release, accompanied the French citizens on the plane.
On Monday, a tribal source told AFP that the hostages had travelled to Salalah by car from their place of captivity in Yemen’s Shabwa province.
He said all three were freed Saturday but an announcement of their release was delayed until they safely crossed the border into Oman Sunday night.
News of their release broke early Monday in a statement released by the French presidential palace.
“The president was informed tonight of the liberation of the three aid workers,” the statement said.
In July, tribal sources said the French aid workers were seized by Al-Qaeda militants in the Hadramawt town of Seyun, 600 kilometres (370 miles) east of Sanaa.
Several days later, the sources said the Al-Qaeda kidnappers were demanding a ransom of $12 million.
On Monday, a tribal chief involved in mediation efforts with Al-Qaeda said a ransom was paid to secure the release of the hostages but he did not specify who paid it or how much was paid.
The former hostages were members of the French NGO Triangle Generation Humanitaire which expressed “huge relief” after receiving news of their release but declined to name the three, saying only they were between the ages of 25 and 30.
It remains unclear what Oman’s role has been in securing the release of the hostages.
In September, Oman had paid the ransom for two US hikers held by Iran for more than two years.
Local Yemen sources said Monday that leaders of the Al-Awalaq tribe led negotiations with Fahd al-Qusso, a tribe member and a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which kidnapped the three.
The hostages had been held in Shabwa, the ancestral homeland of Anwar al-Awlaqi, the US-born Islamic cleric and Al-Qaeda leader who was killed in a suspected US drone strike in September.
Foreigners have frequently been kidnapped in Yemen by tribes who use the tactic to pressure the authorities into making concessions.
More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Yemen over the past 15 years, with almost all of them later freed unharmed.