Islamic extremists freed 14 European hostages last night from more than six months of captivity in the Sahara after protracted negotiations with the governments of Germany and Mali, the German Foreign Ministry confirmed.
The nine Germans, four Swiss and a Dutchman were handed over to Mali government officials, ending an ordeal that began when they were kidnapped by extremists in the Algerian Sahara in February.
"All 14 hostages are in the care of the Mali authorities. They are in good health. It is a great day for us and a great day for the German government," said Juergen Chrobog, Germany's deputy foreign minister, who had been leading negotiations with the kidnappers in Mali.
He refused to confirm or deny whether any ransom had been paid. Mr Chrobog, who arrived in Mali on Sunday, credited the "great diplomatic skill of the Malian President" for negotiating the hostages' release.
German reports suggested earlier that the German government had funded a ¤4.6m (£3.2m) payment to the hostage-takers via the Mali government. Mali was to be refunded later in the form of development aid from Germany, the reports said.
The hostages were kidnapped with 17 other Europeans by an Islamic extremist group with links to al-Qa'ida, known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat. A group of hostages was freed in May after a gun battle in the Algerian Sahara between the kidnappers and Algerian security forces. But the kidnappers escaped with 15 of the hostages, whom they smuggled into neighbouring Mali last month. Michaela Spitzer, one of the German hostages, died from heat exhaustion, reducing their number to 14.
German Foreign Ministry sources said last night that the 14 would be flown back to Germany from the Mali capital of Bamako on a German air force plane tonight. They were expected to be taken to a military airport in Cologne. All were said to be in good health.
The parents of one of the hostages, Sascha Notter, 27, were seen driving away from their house in suburban Stuttgart, escorted by two police cars and carrying a large travel bag and backpack.
Freed hostages have told how their captors divided them into groups and marched them to new hiding places every night to avoid detection by the security forces.