Hostage finally freed by al-Qaeda after six years thought news of his release was a joke
Stephen McGown, pictured with his wife Catherine, was released after six long years (Picture: Getty)

Two hostages who were held in al-Qaeda captivity for six years have spoken of their relief after being released.

Stephen McGown, from South Africa, revealed he thought his captors were joking when they informed him of his freedom.

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Mr McGown and Swede Johan Gustafsson, both 42, were the longest held of a group of prisoners captured by the extremists in Mali.

However, Mr McGown, who said he initially believed the group was ‘pulling my leg’, said he was well treated, particularly after he converted to Islam.

He said: ‘I did my best to see the best in a bad situation.

Hostage finally freed by al-Qaeda after six years thought news of his release was a joke
Mr McGown was determined to be positive about the experience (Picture: EPA)

‘I didn’t want to come out an angry person and be a bigger burden on my family.

‘Sometimes you are miserable and you want to fight everyone (but) I did not want to become a mess. I want to come home a better person.’

He described how al-Qaeda militants gave him clothes, food and medication, but despite that, ‘you always knew you were a prisoner’, he added.

Mr McGown, who said he converted to Islam of his own accord, built a hut of grass and sticks to survive the cold Sahara desert nights, when he often had only one blanket.

Hostage finally freed by al-Qaeda after six years thought news of his release was a joke
Johan Gustafsson was freed in June (Picture: Getty)

He found out about the death of his mother, who passed away in May, minutes before arriving home in South Africa.

It is believed the extremists were initially demanding a 10 million euro (£9 million) ransom per captive.

Mr Gustafsson said: ‘I think it’s wrong to pay ransoms. I hope they let me out because they were tired of me.’

Both Sweden and South Africa claim they did not pay a ransom to release the men.