A Swiss hostage abducted in January by an Al-Qaeda arm was freed Sunday in northern Mali, where clashes have escalated between soldiers and the militants, a source close to local authorities said.
"The Swiss hostage has been freed, he is very tired, and will soon be reunited with his family, after first passing through Bamako," the source told AFP.
He was freed in Gao region in the country's northern desert, where dozens of people were reported killed this month in violent clashes between the Malian army and fighters from Al-Qaeda's north African branch.
In Geneva the Swiss foreign ministry said it could not confirm the report.
"We cannot confirm this information at the moment. We are in tight contact with the authorities in Mali," spokesman Andreas Stauffer said.
Werner Greiner, who was abducted on January 22, was the last western hostage still being held by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) out of six westerners seized in the Sahel region in December and January.
Burco and Petzold were released on April 22, along with two Canadian diplomats kidnapped in December.
But on June 3 the extremist group announced on a website that it had beheaded Dyer, the first time it had killed a western hostage, because London would not meet its demands.
Earlier this month an official in northern Mali involved in the negotiations with the kidnappers said the Swiss national was in poor shape.
"He is hardly eating at all. He is suffering a lot. We are very worried," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Another negotiator acknowledged the situation was worrisome. "The kidnappers have not yet killed him but he is in a critical state."
Since the British national's execution Mali has stepped up efforts to hunt down the Al-Qaeda militants, with President Amadou Toumani Toure announcing an all-out war on the group.
According to the army, dozens of people were killed on July 4 in the deadliest clashes yet reported in the northwestern desert region between Mali soldiers and Al-Qaeda fighters.
AQIM claimed to have killed 28 soldiers and taken three prisoner in an ambush against an army convoy after a "ferocious battle". It would only confirm one death in its ranks, of a Mauritanian combatant.
Captain Ali Diakite in the Mali army chief of staff dismissed the group's claims as "pure propaganda", saying there were dozens of dead on both sides "but the terrorists lost the most men".
At the city's main military base a sergeant told AFP he had received training from US military instructors on fighting Al-Qaeda in the desert.
"The training lasted several weeks. I'm putting that into use," he said.
"The international community is on our side and we hope it will come to our help soon," local authority employee Abdramane Keita told AFP, showing a business card with the name "ambassador Vicki Huddleston," from the Pentagon.
"She came with the US generals and promised her country would help us," Keita said.
Although essentially based in Algeria, in the past three years AQIM has extended its operations to the Sahel region and in recent weeks to Mali.
Source: AFP Global Edition