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BAMAKO (Reuters) - Two Canadian diplomats and two European tourists held hostage by al Qaeda's north African wing in the Sahara desert have been released, a spokesman for Mali's president and Canada's Prime Minister said on Wednesday.
Canadian Robert Fowler, a United Nations envoy to Niger, disappeared with his aide last December, while four tourists -- two Swiss, a German and a Briton -- were kidnapped on the Mali-Niger border in January.
"We confirm the release of four hostages," Seydou Cissouma, a spokesman for Mali's president, told Reuters. He said they were the Canadians and two female tourists.
The freed tourists are from Switzerland and Germany.
Earlier this month, a Malian security source said a team of mediators was negotiating the release of the European tourists.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Fowler and his assistant Louis Guay were in the hands of Malian authorities, but would be transferred to the care of Canadian authorities as soon as possible.
"I cannot imagine the ordeal they have suffered in recent weeks," Harper told a news conference in Ottawa at which he declined to say if any ransom was paid to obtain any of the victims' release.
Harper said Canada had a policy against paying ransoms, but negotiations in this case were handled by Malian authorities.
"The decisions made by other governments are their decisions as sovereign governments, and those questions must be put to those governments," Harper told reporters.
Analysts say the Sahara desert in West Africa has become increasingly insecure and the lines between ideology and criminality have become blurred.
Tuareg rebellions are simmering in both Mali and Niger, Islamist groups are seeking to spread their influence south from Algeria and there is a long tradition of trafficking in cigarettes, weapons and people.
A Malian security source told Reuters the hostages had been handed to local authorities in Gao, over 625 miles northeast of Bamako.
Al Qaeda's north African wing had said it was holding the four tourists, who were taken from Mali into the neighboring Saharan state of Niger, as well as the two Canadians.
The group had demanded 20 of its members be freed from detention in Mali and other countries as a condition for releasing the hostages.
Malian officials initially blamed Tuareg rebels for the January abduction. Military sources in the West African country say al Qaeda hires the nomadic rebels and other armed groups to carry out kidnappings.
The January incident was the worst in Mali since Islamist rebels abducted 32 European tourists in 2003.
Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations, and Randall Palmer, David Ljunggren, Allan Dowd in Canada; writing by David Lewis; editing by Todd Eastham