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Briton converted to Islam during six years as al Qaida hostage

Stephen McGown was captured while motorcycling in the fabled west African city of Timbuktu.

A Briton held hostage by al Qaida for six years in West Africa has revealed he converted to Islam in captivity.

Stephen McGown, who also has South African citizenship, was captured in Mali while on a motorcycle tour of Africa.

The 42-year-old said his captors treated him better after he adopted Islam, giving him clothes, food and medication.

“I did my best to see the best in a bad situation,” he said.

Stephen McGown with his wife Catherine (Themba Hadebe/AP)

He described how he learned some Arabic to communicate and said he watched birds migrate “backwards and forwards” across the vast Sahara.

He was released with Swede Johan Gustafsson, 42, and in their first appearance since freedom, the pair said they were not clear whether any ransom was paid for their release.

“I think it’s wrong to pay ransoms,” Mr Gustafsson, who was freed in June, said.

“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.

Stephen McGown savours freedom (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Mr Gustafsson and Mr McGown were the longest-held of a number of foreigners seized by Islamic extremists in Mali, where several armed groups roam the 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.

Mr McGown told reporters in South Africa he did not know whether any ransom was paid for his release in late July. South Africa’s government has said it paid no ransom.

He said he was well-treated during his long years in the desert, but “you always knew you were a prisoner”.

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

Johan Gustafsson speaks to reporters in Stockholm after his release (Vilhelm Stockstad/AP)

Dutchman Sjaak Rijke also was seized with Mr Gustafsson and Mr 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 organisation Gift of the Givers Foundation, which helped mediate Mr McGown’s release, said he did not 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 euro (£9 million) per captive.

When asked how they coped during their long years in the desert with their captors, Mr Gustafsson said he converted to Islam “to save my life”.

He said fleeing the extremists had been “out of the question”.


From Belfast Telegraph