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Canadian hostage recounts harrowing rescue from Somalia

Qurat-Ul-Ain Sadazai, 38, a Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin, arrives by Kenyan military helicopter at Wilson airport in Nairobi on July 2, 2012.

Khalil Senosi/AP

It was a nerve-racking five minutes after days of high tension.

An operation to rescue four foreign aid workers abducted into Somalia was sprung as they were resting after yet another gruelling night march. But as the kidnappers started running and the crack of gunshots echoed in the air, it wasn't immediately clear what was happening.

"We were a bit panicked," Qurat Ul-Ain Sadozai, one of two Canadians freed in the operation, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Nairobi.

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Huddled against the ground in a thorn-bush, the aid workers waited tensely. Ms. Sadozai said she wasn't worried about being killed but was concerned the foreigners, who had been treated comparatively well, could end up in the hands of a different kidnap group.

The foreigners kept their heads down for more than five minutes. A group of about 20 men in fatigues finally appeared in place of the kidnappers. They were armed, but friendly.

"The people who were rescuing us came in and said 'we are here to rescue you, don't panic, don't worry'," Ms. Sadozai recalled. "They shook our hand. They were equally excited to have rescued us."

It was the end of an ordeal begun three days earlier, when the foreigners were carjacked as part of a Norwegian Refugee Council convoy in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. Taken at gunpoint were Ms. Sadozai and fellow Canadian Steve Dennis, along with Norwegian Astrid Sehl and Filipino Glenn Costes.

Fear was a constant as they were marched into Somalia, aware they were moving through lawless territory where wild animals and gunmen roam.

The foreigners were keenly aware that kidnappings in the region can drag on for months or years and were trying to keep up their spirits. It helped that the group included experienced aid workers. The Gatineau-based Ms. Sadozai had previously worked in Pakistan for the NRC and Mr. Dennis, from the Toronto-area city of Richmond Hill, had worked for Médecins sans Frontières.

Ms. Sadozai described a tough few days in captivity. The kidnappers were considerate, she said, even carrying the foreigners' backpacks at times. But the terrain was rough, the night marches were long and windy and they were sleeping on the ground.

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"We were well treated," she said. "It's all relative, but we were well treated. We were not harassed or beaten or in any way injured. But of course, from walking, our feet are quite sore, because it was eight to 10 hours a day, which is quite intensive."

They would start walking each evening at about six o'clock and trek through the darkness, stopping for a few hours' sleep on only one of the nights. In the morning they would be hidden in a thorny bush, where they would rest through the day on the ground, wrapped in their scarves.

But on the third morning the routine suddenly changed. The captors abruptly started to run and gunfire could be heard. In no more than 10 minutes, the foreigners were in a vehicle, being whisked to safety.

Ms. Sadozai, who expects to return soon to her work in the region, did not want to trample on local sensitivities by speculating about the allegiance of the kidnappers. But it has been widely suspected that the foreigners were taken by al-Shabab, an Islamist group opposed to the shaky Somali leadership.

The rescue was undertaken by a rival Somali group, a militia known as Ras Kombani.

Ms. Sadozai plans to return to the area after visiting her parents in Pakistan. She hopes the incident will prompt outsiders to pay more attention to the region, including the refugees who pour out of Somalia into neighbouring Kenya.

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"This ... shows the reality of how difficult things are for them," she said. "We were made to walk but every day they are doing that trek."

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