BISSAU (Reuters) - Three Senegalese women who work for a South African organization that cleared land mines and were kidnapped by separatist rebels in Senegal this month were handed over to authorities in neighbouring Guinea-Bissau on Wednesday.
Twelve employees of demining firm Mechem were kidnapped by a faction of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance, which has waged a 31-year struggle for independence in Senegal's southern border with Guinea-Bissau.
A Reuters witness said the women were handed over to the government in Bissau by Mao Ku Mao, a local organization that had secured their release.
"We convinced the rebels that freeing the hostages would be a sign that they want peace and are ready to move forward in talks with the Senegalese authorities," said Bigna Na Fantchamna, Mao Ku Mao's coordinator.
Nine other male employees are still being held.
The Casamance conflict is largely dormant, but there are sporadic flare-ups between rebels and Senegal's army and banditry and drug trafficking are common in the isolated region, which was once a major tourist destination.
Mediators are seeking to kick-start new talks between the two sides, but the rebels warned in March against demining in the region.
Senegal has an otherwise enviable reputation for stability in a region that has been crippled by wars and coups.
(Reporting by Alberto Dabo; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)