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Released South African Stephen McGowan, who was kidnapped by al Qaeda in Mali in 2011, addresses a media conference with his wife Catherine McGowan in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 10, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - After nearly six years as a hostage of the Al Qaeda group in Mali, South African tourist Stephen McGowan said he would keep the beard that brushes his chest when he bows to speak into the microphone.

McGowan was released last month after being kidnapped, along with four other foreigners, while touring Mali on motorbikes. One, a German, was killed in the kidnapping. A Dutch hostage was freed in 2015 in a raid by French special forces and a Swede was released in June this year.

"I'll probably keep the beard. I see all of my friends are growing them. They've become funky," McGowan told a conference on Thursday.

Recently discharged from hospital after a week in observation and treatment for numerous minor ailments, McGowan, flanked by his widower father and his wife, shyly recalled details of ordeal.

"I don't believe they knew my nationality. It would have been first prize for them if I was British," McGowan said. "They kidnapped me just because I was non-Muslim."

He eventually converted to from Catholicism to Islam, and said that this made his stay easier.

South Africa's government said no ransom was paid to secure his release. Gift of the Givers, the organisation that acted as intermediaries between Al Qaeda and government, said on Thursday McGowan had been released on compassionate grounds.

McGowan said he was driven across remote stretches of the Sahara in the back of utility truck with other hostages, and housed in a grass hut, handcuffed and blindfolded for long periods.

He was told on a the drive home his mother had passed away.

(Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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Reuters