Two Italian priests and a Canadian nun kidnapped in northern Cameroon in early April by suspected Boko Haram gunmen have been released, Cameroon's communications minister said on Sunday.
Church authorities identified the priests abducted April 5 as Giampaolo Marta and Gianantonio Allegri, missionaries from the diocese of Vicenza in northeast Italy, and the nun as Gilberte Bussières.
"I confirm the release of the two priests and the nun abducted a few weeks ago. They are in good health. They are now in a plane heading to Yaounde," Cameroon's Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said.
Bussiere's cousin, Michel Belanger, who still lives in the nun's hometown of Asbestos, Que., said the family feels relief after weeks of worry.
"We were almost expecting the worst," he told The Canadian Press. "But now, everything has changed, everything is fine. So we're very happy."
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said news of the release "fills us with joy."
"We thank the Lord that this dramatic episode has reached a positive outcome," Lombardi said.
Pope Francis had followed the affair closely, he said, and had been informed immediately of the releases.
"It's a great joy," said Federica Mogherini, Italy's foreign affairs minister, in response to the news.
"I first thank the authorities of Cameroon President Paul Biya for the great work done and the government of Canada with whom we have worked closely," Mogherini said.
"I want to express my great satisfaction for the success of an operation conducted brilliantly, thanks to the continued cooperation between our intelligence services and the crisis unit of the foreign ministry," she added.
35 years in Cameroon
Bussière began her first mission in Cameroon in 1979, and has worked there ever since.
She was director of a school in Douvangar, Cameroon, and was working as a consultant for the school at the time of her kidnapping.
Her friend Louise Hébert said that education — particularly for girls — was the biggest motivation for Bussière's 35 years of work in Cameroon.
"It was her life," said Hébert.
Hébert said Bussière had been concerned that the social and political climate in Cameroon had deteriorated in recent years.
"This is the way of thinking for Boko Haram — that girls do not have the right to an education, and that they shouldn't be in school," said Hébert.
Warning of deteriorating security
The priests had been working on improving water supplies and fighting the spread of HIV AIDS, as well as their religious duties, according to their diocese website.
Bussières belongs to the Montreal-based Congrégation de Notre-Dame. According to the congregation, Bussières has worked in Africa since 1979.
One of the priests said in a letter to his diocese — posted on its website — that local authorities had advised him to travel with a police escort due to the deteriorating security situation in northern Cameroon.
Boko Haram fighters have killed thousands of people in the group's fight to carve out an Islamic state in neighbouring northern Nigeria. They have increasingly carried out attacks and kidnappings in northern Cameroon, including the abduction of a French family of seven in February 2013. The family was released two months later.
A French Catholic priest was captured by an unknown group in the same region in November and freed the following month.
Nigeria's head of counter terrorism in an interview with Reuters on Friday accused Cameroon of failing to make a serious effort to drive Boko Haram insurgents from its territory.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the last name of the nun released from captivity in Cameroon. The correct spelling is Sister Gilberte Bussière.Jun 02, 2014 5:00 PM ET