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Mali gunmen release Swiss woman

Timbuktu - Islamist fighters in rebel-held northern Mali on Tuesday released a Swiss woman abducted this month in the desert town of Timbuktu, witnesses and the Swiss government said.

Beatrice Stockly was handed over by heavily-armed members of Islamist group Ansar Dine to Swiss diplomats 7km north of Timbuktu, the witnesses said. She had been captured on April 15.

Fighters from the Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard while waiting for the handover of a Swiss woman in the desert outside Timbuktu in Mali. Credit: Associated Press

Wearing a black veil, the woman appeared to be in good health and did not make any public statement after her release, according to a witness.

Stockly is a missionary who has lived in Timbuktu, and old Sahara trading town and a seat of Islamic learning, for a number of years and speaks several local languages, residents said.

The Swiss Foreign Ministry issued a statement confirming a woman kidnapped on April 15 in Timbuktu had been released, adding she was now in a safe place and in good health.

After her release, Stockly was placed on a helicopter bound for Burkina Faso, whose leaders have acted as mediators trying to win the release of hostages in the region. An Ansar Dine representative at the release said they had not sought any ransom.

A mix of Tuareg separatists and Islamist rebels captured Timbuktu on April 1 in the final leg of their lightning advance southwards through Mali's desert north, as government forces retreated in the aftermath of a coup in the capital.

Seven Algerian diplomats have also been kidnapped in northern Mali since the rebels took the territory but Algeria's Foreign Ministry said this week it saw a “real prospect” that the diplomats would be freed.

In the days leading to Timbuktu's capture, most resident Westerners had left due to fears of being kidnapped and passed on to al-Qaeda cells operating in the area.

AQIM, al-Qaeda's North African wing, is already holding several Western hostages and has earned millions of dollars from ransom payments from previous kidnappings.

Mali, once a poster child of African democracy, has fallen swiftly into chaos since the northern rebellion and a military overthrow last month that toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure. - Reuters

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