A South African man who was held hostage by al-Qaeda’s North African branch for six years said he initially thought news of his release was a joke.
Stephen McGown was snatched from Timbuktu in 2011 by Mali-based Islamist extremists who have made a fortune by demanding ransoms.
He was among the longest-held Western hostages by the group until he was finally set free on July 25. It was not clear if a ransom was paid for his release.
Mr McGown said he had been told that negotiations were underway to secure his freedom, but he had lost hope after being let down many times before.
He said when he was first told he was being released, he thought his captor was “pulling my leg” in a press conference on Thursday.
Mr McGown had been kidnapped together with two other Westerners, including Swedish national Johan Gustafsson, who was released a few weeks earlier in June.
A Dutch tourist who was also taken at the same time was freed by a French raid in 2015.
Mr McGown said it had been “difficult to understand” his sudden release
at first in a press conference held by South African aid group Gift of the Givers Foundation, which helped to negotiate a deal with the rebels.
He was also still coming to terms with the news that his mother had died while he was being held hostage.
“My mum is a big blow,” he said. “I try to see the best in everything, but his is the one thing I’m unable to really understand.”
South African Ministry of State Security spokesman Brian Dube said that Mr McGown was in good health and had been looked after well by his captors.
The state says it does not pay ransoms for hostages, but other non-governmental groups were also involved in talks with the extremists and may have paid.
Mr McGown appeared at the press conference with long hair and a beard after many years spent in the desert.
His wife, Catherine, described their first exchange on reuniting: “He looked at me and said, ‘Wow, your hair’s grown!’ I said, ‘Your hair’s longer than mine now!'”
Islamic extremists in Africa 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 nonprofit organisation in Niger.