Italian hostage held by Al-Qaeda freed after 14 months

An Italian hostage kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria and released in Burkina Faso after 14 months in captivity in the Sahara desert was on her way back to Italy on Tuesday.

"Maria Sandra Mariani is free. I have just informed her relatives. I join them in their great satisfaction and relief at this magnificent news," Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi was quoted as saying in a statement.

He also voiced gratitude for "all those who contributed to this result" and told reporters that Mariani had been held in "terrible conditions."

Mariani spoke to her family after being freed and was quoted by Italian media as telling them: "I am in heaven, I am finally free!"

"I've thought of you a lot and I hug you all. I'm fine."

She then boarded a plane that had been specially chartered by Italian authorities to take her from the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, to Rome where she was set to arrive in the early hours of Wednesday.

Her father started crying on hearing news of her release and lawmakers in the Italian parliament burst out in a round of applause, media reports said.

"It's official. My daughter Maria Sandra is free and coming home soon," her father, Lido, said at his home in San Casciano Val di Pesa south of Florence.

Mariani said he expected his daughter back in her home town on Wednesday.

A high-level security source in Burkina Faso earlier told AFP that Mariani had been taken to a hotel following her release and was in good health.

"She is well despite the shock of what she has experienced," he said.

Mariani was travelling as a tourist with a driver and tour guide when she was kidnapped in a remote area of southern Algeria on February 2.

The driver and guide were later released and said they had been kidnapped by "14 men riding in two Toyota trucks", a security source said at the time.

In an audio recording aired by Al-Arabiya television on February 18, Mariani's voice was heard saying in halting French that she was "being held by the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Tarek ibn Zyad battalion".

In July last year, AFP in Bamako in Mali viewed a video of the woman given to negotiators in which she did not speak but was shown in a veil and pink robes, sitting on the sand with her hands crossed and guns in the background.

Italian foreign ministry officials kept tight-lipped on the circumstances of the release. A spokesman told AFP: "There was diplomatic action and intelligence action. There are details we cannot divulge."

The foreign ministry also vehemently denied reports in some media that a three-million-euro ($4.0-million) ransom had been paid.

The spokesman said Mariani had been moved across two or three countries during her captivity but could not say which country she was last held in.

Italy's International Cooperation and Integration Minister Andrea Riccardi said he would travel to Burkina Faso on Friday to thank the government there.

"This is a happy ending to a very long captivity, which has put Maria Sandra and her relatives under a severe strain," Riccardi said.

Burkina Faso neighbours Mali, where Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups have seized the northern half of the country in recent weeks. A Swiss woman was seized by Islamists in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu on Sunday.

Algeria's foreign ministry said it was "delighted" by Mariani's release.

"We are delighted by the liberation of the Italian national Maria Sandra Mariani and we ardently hope that other hostages held by various groups can be freed and returned to their families safe and sound," the ministry said.

Another Italian national, aid worker Rossella Urru, was captured in Algeria along with two Spanish colleagues in October 2011 and is still being held.

A Malian source close to the mediators told AFP last month that they were being held by a group calling itself the "Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa" which had demanded a 30-million-euro ransom for them.

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