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South African held hostage in Mali freed after six years

Stephen McGown was the longest-held of a number of foreigners seized by Islamic extremists in the West African country.

A South African man who was held hostage by al Qaida’s North Africa branch for six years in Mali has been freed and is back home, South Africa’s government said.

Stephen McGown, who was released on Saturday, was 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.

Mr McGown – who also has British citizenship – was kidnapped in 2011 at a hostel in Timbuktu, where he had been travelling as a tourist.

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Malcolm McGown said it was a "big surprise" when his son walked through the door (AP)

“It was a big surprise when Stephen walked through the door,” his father Malcolm told reporters. “He felt as sound and as strong as before.”

South Africa’s minister for international relations, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said the government does not pay ransoms in hostage situations.

Mr McGown’s release follows that of Swedish national Johan Gustafsson, who was freed in late June after being kidnapped in November 2011. Swedish officials denied that a ransom had been paid, as other European governments have done to secure the release of their citizens in the Sahel.

In early July, Mr McGown was included in a proof-of-life video released by the al Qaida-linked Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen group in Mali.

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Frame grab of Stephen McGown from video released by Islamic extremists (AP)

The video showed six foreign hostages shortly before French President Emmanuel Macron arrived for an anti-terror summit.

“No genuine negotiations have begun to rescue your children,” a narrator of the video said.

Gift of the Givers, a South African charity, had tried to secure the release of Mr McGown and Mr Gustafsson since 2015, sending a negotiator into remote parts of Mali and Niger. “We have reached a dead end,” the charity said in a May 17 statement.

Also in May, Mr McGown’s mother, Beverley McGown, died after an illness. Mr McGown’s father on Thursday told reporters his son “will pick himself up” and rejoin life at home after the loss.

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Catherine McGown, the wife of Stephen McGown (AP)

Mr McGown’s wife Catherine described their first exchange on reuniting, saying: “He looked at me and said, ‘Wow, your hair’s grown!’ I said, ‘Your hair’s longer than mine now!'”

Extremists are still believed to be holding a Colombian nun taken from Mali, an Australian doctor and a Romanian man seized at different times in Burkina Faso, and an American who was working with a non-profit organisation in Niger.

Islamic extremists seized control of Mali’s north in 2012. While they were forced out of strongholds a year later by a French-led military intervention, jihadists continue to attack Malian and French soldiers and UN peacekeepers.

Five regional countries – Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – have joined a 5,000-strong multinational military force against the extremists.

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