Swede held for years in Mali says he doesn't believe countries should pay ransoms

Two men released from al-Qaeda captivity after six years in northern Mali made their first public appearances Thursday, recounting their ordeals and saying they were not clear whether any ransom was paid.

“I think it’s wrong to pay ransoms,” Johan Gustafsson, who was freed in June, told reporters in Sweden. “I hope they let me out because they were tired of me.” Sweden has insisted it never paid any ransom and that his release was obtained through negotiations.

Gustafsson and Stephen McGown, both 42, were the longest-held of a number of foreigners seized by Islamic extremists in Mali, where several armed groups roam the West African country’s north. The extremists have made a fortune over the last decade abducting foreigners in the vast Sahel region and demanding enormous ransoms for their release.

McGown told reporters in South Africa he didn’t know whether any ransom was paid for his release in late July. He said he was well-treated during his long years in the desert, but “you always knew you were a prisoner.”

“I don’t believe they knew my nationality. It would have been first prize for them if I was British,” McGown said. “They kidnapped me just because I was non-Muslim.”

Mother died weeks before release

McGown also said he found out about his mother’s death just minutes before he arrived home in South Africa. His mother died in May.

Dutchman Sjaak Rijke also was seized with Gustafsson and McGown in Timbuktu but was rescued by French forces in April 2015. A fellow German traveller was killed during the kidnapping.

The founder of the South African aid organization Gift of the Givers Foundation, which helped mediate McGown’s release, said he didn’t know whether any ransom was paid or any prisoners exchanged for the men’s release. But Imtiaz Sooliman said the extremists’ initial demands started at 10 million euros ($ 15M Cdn) per captive.

The South African has denied reports it made a payment of 3.5 million euros ($ 5.2M Cdn) to secure McGown’s release.

Stephen McGown

Stephen McGown, left, with his wife Catherine, during a media conference in Johannesburg on Thursday. Both McGown and Gustafsson said they converted to Islam to help survive their ordeal. (Themba Hadebe/Associated Press)

When asked how they coped during their long years in the desert with their captors, Gustafsson said he converted to Islam “to save my life.” He said fleeing the extremists had been “out of the question.”

He had been on a motorcycle tour of Africa when he was seized.

McGown, who said he also converted to Islam, said his captors gave him clothes, food and medication.

“I did my best to see the best in a bad situation,” he said. He described how he learned some Arabic to communicate and said he watched birds migrate “backwards and forwards” across the vast Sahara.

Recently discharged from hospital after a week in observation and treatment for numerous minor ailments, McGown, was accompained Thursday by his widower father and his wife.

“I’ll probably keep the beard. I see all of my friends are growing them. They’ve become funky,” McGown said.

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