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

7th April 2015, Comments 0 comments

A Dutch hostage freed after being held by Al-Qaeda-linked extremists 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 beard, from the plane that had flown him from Gao in northern Mali.

He was greeted by Malian Security Minister Sada Samake and Dutch and French diplomats, before heading in a convoy to meet President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, according to the presidency.

Members of his family were also at the airport to welcome him, a Dutch diplomatic source told AFP.

The source was unable to specify which relatives had made the trip, but Dutch media said his wife, Tilly Kettner, had left the Netherlands for Bamako on Monday to be reunited with her husband.

Dutch media said Rijke was due to return to the Netherlands on Tuesday evening, although the ministry would not officially confirm this.

French President Francois Hollande said on Monday Rijke had been transported to a safe location and that a number of suspected jihadists were killed during the operation.

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 bearded 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.

© 2015 AFP

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