'Freedom!': Freed Dutch hostage arrives in Mali capital

7th April 2015, Comments 0 comments

A Dutch hostage freed after being held by Al-Qaeda's north African arm in Mali for more than three years arrived in the capital Bamako on Tuesday, shouting "freedom!" as he exited his plane.

Train driver Sjaak Rijke, abducted while on holiday in Timbuktu in November 2011, was set free in a raid on Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb by French special forces on Monday.

He shouted "freedom!" as he emerged in jeans, a shirt and a cap, sporting a thick grey beard, from the plane that had flown him from Gao in northern Mali.

The 54-year-old was greeted by government ministers and Dutch and French diplomats, before heading in a convoy for a brief meeting with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Accompanied by his wife Tilly Kettner, Rijke told journalists at the presidential palace he felt well and had not been mistreated "all the time" by his captors.

"The intervention of the French soldiers was very risky. I thank them. I'm happy to be free," he said, before returning to the airport where he is expected to board a flight back to the Netherlands later on Tuesday.

French President Francois Hollande said on Monday a number of suspected jihadists were killed during the rescue.

He said the French soldiers were not aware of the hostage's location before the raid against the extremists near Tessalit in Mali's far north, close to the border with Algeria.

The president's account appeared to be contradicted by senior French general Gregoire de Saint-Quentin, the head of special operations, who described a meticulously planned raid involving 20 elite soldiers.

- Dream holiday -

A video shot after his release showed a relaxed Rijke, smiling as he shared a meal with French soldiers, a marked contrast to the gaunt figure in a video released by his kidnappers five months ago.

Gunmen had stormed into Rijke's hotel in Timbuktu in 2011, capturing him as well as a South African and a Swede, both of whom are still being held.

Kettner, also at the hotel at the time, managed to escape.

Rijke, who was 51 when he was kidnapped, and his wife were described in the Dutch media as seasoned travellers who were on a "dream trip" to cross the Sahara.

Mali's vast desert north is riven by ethnic rivalries and an Islamist insurgency.

Jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda controlled the region for more than nine months in 2012 until they were routed by a French-led military intervention, but extremist fighters remain active.

Mali is also struggling with ethnic Tuareg militants fighting the army over northern territory they claim as their homeland.

Rijke's rescue came two days after a Romanian mineworker was seized in the far north of neighbouring Burkina Faso.

The security officer was kidnapped when five armed men attacked the manganese mine in Tambao, 350 kilometres (220 miles) northeast of the capital, Ouagadougou.

The unidentified gunmen took off in the direction of the nearby border with Mali, according to security officials in both countries.

Burkinabe authorities said on Sunday they planned to cross into Mali to hunt the kidnappers.

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© 2015 AFP

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