Banjul, Gambia -
Separatist rebels in Senegal's restive Casamance region have released eight hostages in an area close to the Gambian border following talks with Catholic mediators, sources said.
A delegation from the Casamance Movement of Democratic Forces (MDFC) handed over the hostages - six members of the military, a member of a paramilitary police unit and one civilian - to Gambian authorities shortly before 1.00pm (13.00 GMT), said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a statement.
ICRC representatives witnessed the release, Angelo Romano, a member of the Rome-based Sant'Egidio community, told AFP.
The eight had been captured in December 2011 and January 2012.
The Sant'Egidio community said seven members of the military and a firefighter had been released but checks to establish their identity were underway.
Romano said five army members who had been captured in December 2011 in an attack on an army camp at Kabeum, 60 kilometres north-west of Ziguinchor, were among those freed.
One of the MFDC's military chiefs Salif Sadio, a member of the group's most hardline wing, clad in white for the occasion, said the release was a sign of the movement's “goodwill to resolve this conflict peacefully”.
But he also warned that the “release does not mean the end of our battle and even less the renunciation of our option of independence. The fight for national independence continues.”
The freed hostages were to be handed over to a representative of the Senegalese embassy in Banjul before their repatriation.
The Senegalese government began peace negotiations in Rome with representatives of the Casamance rebel movement in October.
The MFDC has been fighting for independence since 1982 in a conflict that has defeated several peace initiatives.
Over the past 30 years the conflict has cost thousands of military and civilian lives and displaced thousands of people and refugees though no accurate figures exist.
The Sant'Egidio Community was founded in Rome in 1968 and got involved in sponsoring peace negotiations in the 1980s when it found that its humanitarian action in Mozambique would be largely useless without peace.
The community has close ties to the Vatican and for many years has made a speciality of parallel and discreet diplomatic activities, earning the name of the “little Trastevere United Nations” from the district of Rome where it is situated. - Sapa-AFP