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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Al Qaeda frees kidnapped South African after five years in captivity

Stephen McGowan, who was based in London before his kidnapping, was released by his captors on July 29 and is now back in South Africa

Malcolm McGowan, father of the kidnapped South African, with foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane at the press conference
Malcolm McGowan, father of the kidnapped South African, with foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane at the press conference

A South African man kidnapped by al Qaeda as he toured Mali on a motorbike has been released after more than five years in captivity.

Stephen McGowan, who was based in London before his kidnapping, was released by his captors on July 29 and is now back in South Africa, it was confirmed on Thursday.

Mr McGowan was taken hostage by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (IQIM) in Mali in November 2011, along with Swedish national Johan Gustafsson and Sjaak Rijke, a Dutch citizen.

They were abducted from a restaurant in the central city of Timbuktu along with a German friend, who was immediately killed when he refused to comply with militants’ demands.

Mr McGowan, who had worked for Investec bank in the UK, had embarked on a “final adventure” of biking through Africa before returning to his home country.

On Thursday, South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane revealed that McGowan’s freedom had come without any ransom being paid by the government.

At a media briefing in Pretoria, she said: “He has been kept in captivity since [2011]. The family, the government, all the people of South Africa and the international community has since been campaigning for his release.

“We are happy to announce that finally these efforts have culminated in Mr McGowan’s release on July 29, 2017.

“We would like to warmly welcome him back home, and wish him good health, good fortune in his life as a free man.

“It is with sadness though that his dear mother, who I have met during this difficult journey we have travelled with other members of the family, passed on in May without seeing her son back home.”

During the press briefing, Mr McGowan’s ecstatic wife Catherine was seen embracing government officials.

Her husband is currently undergoing medical tests to determine the state of his health, but has no major injuries as a result of his incarceration, Nkoana-Mashabane added.

“We call on all South Africans to continue to support Stephen, while allowing him space and the time he needs in the spirit of Ubuntu to adjust to his environment after years of incarceration,” she said.

Mr McGowan's mother died in May, but other family members were overjoyed at his return.

His father, Malcolm McGowan, said: "It was a big surprise when Stephen walked through the door.

"I gave him a big hug and he felt as sound and as strong as before. We simply had to say to Stephen: 'A lot of water has passed under the bridge but you're strong, you've got to get up and carry on with your life.'"

Wife, Catherine, added: "The first thing he said to me was: 'Your hair has grown'. I said to him,'Actually, your hair is longer than mine now'."

Mr Gustafsson was freed in June. The kidnappers had initially demanded $5 million for his release, but the government rejected it, according to Swedish Radio.

A raid in 2015 saw Mr Sjaak Rijke rescued by French special forces.

In a video which emerged after Gustafsson's release, a bearded Mr McGowan seemed to think he would remain incarcerated for a long period.

"It's a long time to be away," he said. "Until when do you think this will come to an end? Now we're making a new video, but I don’t know what to say. It's all been said in the past. It's all been said in previous videos I've made."

Mr McGowan’s family had been campaigning for his release for almost six years and worked with the Gift of the Givers Foundation, which describes itself as the largest disaster relief organisation of African origin on the African continent.

The bounty on Mr McGowan’s head decreased in value during his imprisonment: originally his kidnappers demanded £9.2 million for his release but they later lowered it to £3.6m.

However, it was made clear to his captors - through intermediaries in Mali - that neither Gift of the Givers nor Mr McGowan’s family were able to pay the ransom.

At one point, militants tried to claim Mr McGowan might die of loneliness and depression following the release of his companion, Gustafsson.

IQIM began life as a spin-off from an Islamist movement that fought Algeria's government in the 1990s.

It was pushed into north Mali the following decade, where it pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden's movement and built a network of fighters across the Sahara.

They have been responsible for dozens of kidnappings of Westerners and attacks on security forces across west Africa.