Mali minister admits prisoners freed for French hostage
Mali admitted Friday that prisoners had been freed in exchange for French hostage Serge Lazarevic, confirming information given to AFP earlier this week by a security source in the west African country.
France's last remaining hostage, Lazarevic arrived home on Wednesday after three years in the hands of Islamist militants as questions swirled around the terms of his release.
"I confirm... four prisoners were released from Malian prisons so that Serge Lazarevic could have his freedom," Mali's Justice Minister Mohamed Ali Bathily told AFP.
The 51-year-old was snatched while on a business trip with fellow Frenchman Philippe Verdon in a 2011 kidnapping claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Verdon, who suffered from an ulcer and tachycardia -- an abnormally fast heartbeat -- was found shot dead last year, and those close to his family suggested he had been executed as he was weak.
The French government has refused to comment on reports that several Al-Qaeda prisoners, including those involved in kidnapping Lazarevic in Mali in 2011, were released in exchange for his freedom.
But a Malian security source had told AFP on condition of anonymity that Bamako had freed several AQIM prisoners "on request from Paris".
"I can tell you that men, who some may say are terrorists but to us are prisoners, were freed in exchange for the French hostage," the source said.
A Malian security source said on Friday the four prisoners were transferred to Niamey, Niger's capital, before being taken to northern Mali, where they were handed over to Lazarevic's kidnappers.
A regional security source in Bamako told AFP that in addition to the release of the prisoners, "a ransom was paid".
"The amount? What's it going to serve to know? What is important is the release of the hostage who was in great pain," the source said when pressed on the details of the deal.
The negotiations were also said to involve a close associate of Iyad Ag Ghali, the head of jihadist group Ansar Dine who recently called for combat against France.
The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the Malian chapter of Amnesty International has slammed the release of prisoners suspected of "grave human rights violations" in Mali.
In his three years in captivity, Lazarevic appeared in several AQIM videos, the most recent of which was in November in which he said he was gravely ill and believed his life was in danger.
The video spurred Lazarevic's daughter Diane to urge Hollande to obtain his release "as fast as possible... for Christmas".
Lazarevic was the last of more than a dozen French citizens taken captive in recent years, with those held in Africa reaching a high of 15 last year. Four journalists held by Syrian jihadists were released earlier this year.
© 2014 AFP