French, Italian captives freed with top politician in Mali
An elderly French aid worker and a top Malian politician landed in the capital Bamako to an emotional reunion with their loved ones after being released from captivity by presumed jihadists.
Mali announced the release of Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, 75, and Malian politician Soumaila Cisse on Thursday, alongside two Italian nationals.
French President Emmanuel Macron voiced “immense relief” at the release of Petronin, and tweeted Friday that he would welcome her back to France.
Footage shared on social media showed a frail, white-robed Petronin — who was the last French citizen held hostage in the world — descending from a plane, to an emotional greeting from her son in Bamako.
Cisse, dressed in a white robe, followed her and was also embraced by loved ones before returning home to be greeted by cheering crowds.
“It was a difficult period, but it has been overcome,” the 70-year-old told AFP.
In his tweet, Macron also expressed continued support for Mali in its fight against an Islamist insurgency.
News of the hostages’ release on Thursday came after the government freed over 100 prisoners over the weekend, which sparked speculation of a prisoner swap for Petronin and Cisse.
In an unexpected development, the prime minister’s office also announced Thursday that two Italian nationals, Nicola Chiacchio and Pier Luigi Maccalli, had been freed.
It was not immediately clear whether the two had arrived in Bamako on the same flight.
Petronin was abducted by gunmen on December 24, 2016, in the northern city of Gao, where she worked for a children’s charity.
Cisse, a former opposition leader and three-time presidential candidate, was kidnapped on March 25 while campaigning in his home region of Niafounke, central Mali, ahead of parliamentary elections.
Maccalli, a priest, was abducted in neighbouring Niger in 2018. Chiacchio went missing in northern Mali last year while on a solo bicycle trip, according to Italian media.
-‘Emaciated and fatigued’-
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio all hailed the release of the Italians who Di Maio said were well.
Conte thanked the intelligence services and the foreign office.
There were concerns about Petronin’s health after a 2018 hostage video showed her looking emaciated.
The footage triggered alarm among Petronin’s family members, who pressured Macron to negotiate with her captors.
France’s president several times said his services were working “tirelessly” for her release.
“To her family, to her loved ones, I send a message of sympathy,” Macron tweeted Thursday, adding: “The fight against terrorism in the Sahel continues”.
Mali’s former colonial power France has 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel as part of its anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane.
After first emerging in northern Mali in 2012, a brutal jihadist insurgency has spread to the centre of the country as well as Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in the conflict and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Kidnappings are also common.
-‘We had to’-
Mali’s government on Thursday gave no indication of the circumstances of the hostages’ release.
One of the hostage negotiators, who requested anonymity, told AFP that the talks remained difficult to the end.
On Thursday, Mali’s prime minister’s office said the four hostages had been held by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).
The alliance comprises several jihadist groups aligned to al-Qaeda, and has claimed responsibility for some of the biggest attacks in the Sahel.
Mali released over 100 prisoners to the volatile centre of the country over the weekend and in northern Tessalit town, a security official told AFP this week.
Malian officials who requested anonymity cast the prisoners as jihadists.
The rare mass release sparked immediate speculation on social media of an exchange. Both the Malian and French governments declined to comment over the following days.
There had been little or no discussion over the Italian hostages, however, whose freedom came as a surprise.
The prisoner release came with an interim government due to govern Mali for 18 months before staging elections after a military junta overthrew president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August.
The kidnapping of former opposition leader Cisse was one of the factors that fuelled popular protests which led to the ouster of Keita over his perceived inability to crush the Islamist insurgency.
The intermediary involved in the negotiations told AFP on Thursday that releasing the prisoners was necessary.
“Yes, terrorists were released,” he said. “We had to obtain the release,” he added.
Several other hostages remain detained by militant groups in the Sahel.