OTTAWA – Two Canadian hostages emerged physically unharmed from a four-month kidnapping ordeal and were visiting African capitals to thank governments for helping gain their freedom.
After being whisked to freedom across the Sahel desert, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were at a reception Thursday in the presidential palace of Mali and also planned a trip to Burkina Faso.
The men wanted to thank those African governments for working with Canada to end their four-month hostage crisis.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper called them both and spoke to each for several minutes Thursday.
A Canadian official said the two suffered a terrible ordeal. They were not, however, beaten physically during their months in captivity.
“There’s no indication of any physical torture,” said the government official.
“We are a bit concerned about the mental or psychological abuse they may have endured.”
Harper’s office says Fowler and Guay will soon be joined by their families and will return home on a Canadian government aircraft.
A distant relative of Fowler’s, Liberal MP Dominic Leblanc, said the veteran diplomat would be reunited with his wife and four daughters in Europe.
The high-ranking diplomats were on a United Nations mission in Niger when they were kidnapped in December.
It’s believed they were grabbed by rebels and transferred to an al-Qaida cell, but it’s not clear whether anyone paid ransom money to the terrorist organization for their release.
Harper told a news conference that Canada does not pay ransom or exchange prisoners for hostages – but he was careful to note that two other countries participated in the release.
The men were freed in northern Mali this week and were transported by military vehicles across the desert to the country’s capital, Bamako.
The government avoided commenting for hours even after the hostages were freed, to avoid discussing their movements across Mali.
The plight of faraway Canadians provoked a rare spirit of conviviality in a normally combative parliamentary arena.
A government official said NDP Leader Jack Layton and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff approached the prime minister before Wednesday’s question period to discuss the hostages.
They asked Harper whether they should raise the issue publicly, and agreed to hold off until the hostages had arrived in a safe location. Around that time Leblanc did emerge publicly to say the men appeared to be safe.
Fowler is among Canada’s highest-ranking diplomats – having advised several prime ministers, served as Canada’s ambassador to the UN, lobbied successfully for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, and waged a successful campaign against so-called blood diamonds in Africa.
He was in Niger as the UN’s special envoy to that troubled country.