Freed diplomats celebrate in hilltop palace

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Released hostages Louis Guay, left, and Robert Fowler, centre, talk with Malian Foreign Affairs Minister Moctar Ouane at a reception the day after their release in Bamako, Mali on April 23, 2009.

Two Canadian diplomats sporting full white beards celebrated their freedom in an opulent hilltop palace Thursday — a day after being released by their al-Qaeda captors.

Robert Fowler and Louis Guay showed no sign of physical harm. Their long beards were the only hint of a kidnapping ordeal that began in December in neighbouring Niger.

“They seem tired but they are doing OK,” said Diarra Diakite, spokesman for the president of Mali.

The high-ranking diplomats planned several stops to thank the African governments that helped them gain their freedom. Their first stop was a reception at the gleaming white presidential palace overlooking Mali’s capital.

President Amadou Toumani Toure delivered a toast in which he thanked Canada for making Mali one of its biggest recipients of foreign aid, and said he considered it his moral duty to help a friendly nation.

The Malian government negotiated with the diplomats’ captors, using elected officials and tribal chiefs in the Sahel desert region as intermediaries between them and al-Qaeda.

Mr. Diakite said Mali did “not pay a single penny” in ransom money. He declined to say what might have been offered in exchange for the diplomats’ freedom.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a news conference Wednesday that Canada does not pay ransom or make exchange prisoners for hostages — but he was careful to note that two other countries participated in the release.

Mr. Harper called then men and spoke to each for several minutes Thursday.

A Canadian official said the two suffered a terrible ordeal. They were not, however, beaten 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.”

The men were transported to freedom by military convoy across the Sahel — a sweeping, sandy, craggy landscape with dramatic rock formations similar to the Arizona desert.

They also planned a trip to Burkina Faso to thank that country for it’s help in securing their freedom.

Mr. Harper’s office said Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay will soon be joined by their families and will return home on a Canadian government aircraft.

A relative of Mr. Fowler’s, Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc, said the veteran diplomat would be reunited with his wife and four daughters in Europe.

The diplomats were on a United Nations mission in Niger when they were abducted.

The men were freed in northern Mali this week and transported by military vehicles across the desert to the capital, Bamako.

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 Mr. Harper whether they should raise the issue publicly, and agreed to hold off until the hostages had arrived in a safe location.

Mr. 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.

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