The Islamist rebel group that freed three European hostages in north Mali this week claimed Friday that they received a ransom of €15 million ($18.4 million) and the liberation of two imprisoned group members in exchange.
Adnan Abu Elwalid Sahraoui of the jihadist group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJAO, said the group had no more Western hostages, but threatened to stage more kidnappings in the Sahel region.
"We will take them as soon as they enter the territories of Mauritania, Mali, Algeria or Niger," he said.
The mediators and European governments did not comment on whether a ransom was paid for Wednesday's release of the two Spaniards and one Italian.
However, Gen. Gilbert Diendere, one of the mediators and a close security aid to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, confirmed that two members from MUJAO had been freed in exchange for the hostages.
The three aid workers — Italian Rossella Urru and Spaniards Enric Gonyalons and Ainhoa Fernandez del Rincon — were kidnapped from a refugee camp in southern Algeria last October and held in north Mali. They reunited with their families in Europe late Thursday.
MUJAO's hostage-taking indicates it could be entering the kidnapping business and attempting to mimic the tactics of al-Qaida's North Africa branch, which has bankrolled its operations through ransom money.
After taking the hostages in the Tindouf, Algeria, refugee camp where they were working, MUJAO is believed to have moved them across the porous desert border separating Algeria from Mali, a country whose lawless north has become a base for al-Qaida's North African branch.
The al-Qaida North African branch has kidnapped more than 50 Europeans since 2003 when it first began operating out of Mali and in recent years started contracting locals to grab foreigners, who then sell them to the al-Qaida branch, known as AQIM, or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Intelligence experts had initially thought that MUJAO was such a contractor.