Aug 19, 2017 Last Updated 2:22 PM, Aug 18, 2017
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A man held hostage by al-Qaeda for nearly six years has said he thought it was a "joke" when he was freed.

Stephen McGown, 42, who has South African and UK nationality, was kidnapped from a hotel in Timbuktu, in Mali, along with two others in 2011.

He was released on 29 July following "efforts" from South Africa's government and other authorities.

Mr McGown told a press conference he had tried to keep up routines while in captivity to stay positive.

Speaking for the first time since his release, Mr McGown said he had been in a car with one of his captors when he was told he could leave.

He said he had assumed the man was "joking" and was still not convinced he was free after leaving the vehicle and getting into a second car that was waiting for him.

It was only later in the journey that it sunk in that he was free.

"It was quite a moment," he said.

"It's difficult to actually understand, comprehend, because there have been so many ups and downs over the last five-and-a-half years.

"You're not sure who you can and who you can't believe...

"You want to believe, but you're tired of really coming down with a bang after they tell you you should be going home soon."

Mr McGown said he did not believe his captors knew his nationality when they caught him but had wanted him to be from the UK because British captives were more valuable to them.

He said he had converted to Islam while captive and that he focused on remaining positive in captivity because he did not want to come home "a mess".

"I suppose you try and find routines, you try and find things that sort of give you an escapism from the situation, like doing a bit of exercise," he said.

"I was trying to make conversation with the mujahideen [people who engage in Jihad] to get along with the mujahideen. I didn't want to come out an angry person."

Mr McGown also paid tribute to his mother, who died in May, saying she was "an amazing lady and I can imagine the difficulties she went through".

He added that he did not know why he had been released.

Authorities have previously said that Mr McGown was released following efforts by the South African and Swedish governments and the NGO Gift of the Givers.

The South African government previously said no ransom was paid for Mr McGown's release.

Gunmen have stormed a tourist resort in Mali popular with Westerners and two people are dead, the country's security minister has said.

"It is a jihadist attack. Malian special forces intervened and hostages have been released," Salif Traore told AFP news agency.

"Unfortunately for the moment there are two dead, including a Franco-Gabonese."

The attack happened at luxury resort Le Campement Kangaba, east of the capital Bamako.

The minister said four assailants had been killed by security forces.

"We have recovered the bodies of two attackers who were killed," said Mr Traore, adding that they were "searching for the bodies of two others".

One of them left behind a machine gun and bottles filled with "explosive substances".

The ministry said another two people had been injured, including a civilian.

A security ministry spokesman told Reuters 32 guests had been rescued from the resort.

Malian special forces intervened, backed by UN soldiers and troops from a French counter-terrorism force.

Witness Boubacar Sangare was just outside the compound as the attack unfolded.

"Westerners were fleeing the encampment while two plainclothes police exchanged fire with the assailants," he said.

"There were four national police vehicles and French soldiers in armoured vehicles on the scene."

He added that a helicopter was circling overhead.

The European Union training mission in Mali, EUTMMALI, tweeted that it was aware of the attack and was supporting Malian security forces and assessing the situation.

Earlier this month, the US embassy in Bamako had warned of "possible future attacks on Western diplomatic missions, other locations in Bamako that Westerners frequent".

Mali has been in a state of emergency since the Radisson Blu attack. It was extended for a further six months in April.

The country's security has gradually worsened since 2013, when French forces repelled allied Islamist and Tuareg rebel fighters from parts of the north.

French troops and a 10,000-strong force of UN peacekeepers have been battling to stabilise the former French colony.

Hosts Zambia got off to a flying start in the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations when they beat Guinea 1-0 in front of a packed home crowd at the Heroes Stadium in Lusaka.

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