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Freed Al-Qaida Captive Recounts His Ordeal in Mali

Former hostage Sjaak Rijke, released April 6 by an al-Qaida-related group, waves as he gets off an airplane in Bamako, Mali, April 7, 2015.

A Dutchman freed from captivity in Mali by French soldiers this week described his struggle to remain mentally and physically well during the 3-1/2 years he spent sleeping outside in the desert as an al-Qaida hostage.

In his first statement since being freed Monday, Sjaak Rijke said the years of captivity had been difficult, although he was mostly treated well by his captors.

"The past years have been tough, both physically and mentally," he said in a statement issued Thursday via the Dutch foreign ministry, in which he asked for privacy as he and his family recover from the ordeal.

"Life in the desert is hard, food is often scarce and monotonous. It will be a while before I want to see pasta again," he added.

The years of captivity took their toll on the 54-year-old, who had worked as a train conductor in the Netherlands before he was abducted in Timbuktu in 2011 while on holiday with his wife.

"Sleeping outside in the sand, sitting in the sand. I'm not the youngest — it gives you stiff limbs," he said, adding that he had improvised exercises and sports to stay fit.

"I don't know how much longer I'd have survived. I want to thank the French elite troops who freed me," he added. "I'm alive, and I'm free."

French forces killed two militants and captured two others in Monday's raid on the al-Qaida-linked militant group.

France led a military intervention in 2013 against Islamists who had seized the desert to the north a year earlier, following a Tuareg uprising and a military coup in Bamako. It has since created Barkhane, a 3,000-strong force, to track down Islamist militants across an arid band stretching across five countries from Chad in the east to Mauritania in the west.

Although France has driven fighters from major population centers in northern Mali, remnants of the Islamist groups continue to launch regular attacks there.