NGO in bid to secure release of SA hostage Steve McGowan

An image grab released by Al-Jazeera shows part of a video in which South African Stephen McGowan appears in an undisclosed location in Mali. (AFP)

An image grab released by Al-Jazeera shows part of a video in which South African Stephen McGowan appears in an undisclosed location in Mali. (AFP)

The South African humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers is also trying to secure the release of Swedish national Johan Gustafson, who has been held captive with Stephen McGowan in northern Mali since November 2011.

Imtiaz Sooliman, head of Gift of the Givers, said on Wednesday that Gustafson’s sister had asked him to help free her brother and he had agreed. The two have been captives of the same organisation, which analysts believe to be al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, though this has not been confirmed.

McGowan and Gustafson were most recently shown together in a video, appealing to their governments for help in releasing them, which their captors released in June.

The release of the video persuaded Sooliman that the captors were potentially looking for someone with which to negotiate and he launched an initiative to secure McGowan’s release. His father approached Sooliman for help last year after he had negotiated the release of South African Yolande Korkie from her al-Qaeda captors in Yemen.
Her husband Pierre remained in captivity and was killed in December during a United States raid on his captors to try to free a US citizen who was also being held.

Speaking to news agency ANA and separately to TV news channel ENCA in an interview broadcast on Wednesday, Sooliman said his Malian negotiator Yehia Dicko had flown from South Africa to Mali on July 9. He had met “influential people” in Bamako and had then travelled to Gao in northern Mali where he had met “strategic people”.

“He’s meeting several groups,” Sooliman said, and as a result his return to South Africa had been postponed from this week to August 1.

‘Authentic, impartial and neutral’
Gift of the Givers has been circulating two videos in West and North Africa, appealing to the captors to make contact with Yehia. Sooliman said the videos had been circulated in such a wide area because he believes the members of the group who are holding the two men come from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and other parts of West Africa.

These videos send the message that Yehia is authentic, impartial and neutral. “That he doesn’t represent any government, nor is an agent for any intelligence service. He has come in good faith to negotiate in good faith.”

Sooliman told ENCA that Gift of the Givers was also trying to secure Gustafson’s release because “we’re a humanitarian organisation. And to us it doesn’t matter where an individual is from. 

“We haven’t dealt with non-South Africans before ... and it occurred to me that there were seven people in this group, five are out. If Stephen gets out, only one man will be left. And no one seems to be talking about him. And I felt sad to be leaving a man behind.

“Yesterday, I was in contact with the sister [of Gustafson] again. And she said, look, we understand there are no guarantees, but we appreciate if you can help Johan also.”

Sooliman said he was hoping and waiting for the captors to make contact. He hoped it would not take as long as the wait for the captors of Pierre and Yolande Korki, who took seven months to make contact, between May 2013 and January 2014.

But Sooliman said he thought it should be quicker because of the five videos that the captors of McGowan and Gustafson had released.

Sooliman said the release of the videos was proof that the two men were still alive and were a message from the captors that they wanted someone to talk to.

‘Please contact us’
“We’ve responded to that message. We’ve sent someone into your area, into terrain that you know, into people that you know. We can vouch for the man, we can give you a guarantee, and now, if you feel safe, please contact us. We’re right in your area, not in some other country which you’re afraid of.

“So I’m hoping that they want to contact us sooner rather than later.

“Of course they will have to ‘check us out’, who we are, are we a state agency, do we belong to intelligence services, do we represent the government, can they trust us? All those kinds of issues, they will watch very carefully. And if they ‘feel safe’ with us, then we hope we will get that call.” – ANA

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