Two Spanish aid workers kidnapped almost nine months ago by an al-Qaida affiliate arrived Tuesday in Barcelona after a multi-million-dollar ransom was reportedly paid for their freedom — a sign of the terrorist group's growing sophistication in bankrolling operations through kidnappings, experts said.
Aid workers Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta were abducted last November when their convoy of 4-by-4s was attacked by gunmen on a stretch of road in Mauritania. They were whisked away to Mali, the northern half of which is now one of the many stretches of remote desert where al-Qaida of Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has stretched its tentacles.
Late on Monday afternoon, the pair stepped out of a helicopter that landed on the grounds of the presidential palace in Burkina Faso and were handed a cell phone. Reporters overheard them saying into the phone 'muchas gracias' — or many thanks.
Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that Spain had paid €3.8 million in ransom to secure the aid workers' release. The government refused to comment.
The two men arrived early Tuesday in Barcelona where they were greeted at the airport by family members and government officials. Vilalta, who suffered multiple bullet wounds to his leg when he tried to flee his abductors on the day of the kidnapping, walked with the aid of a single crutch.
"Now we are free and I'm very happy and very moved," he said.