October 23rd, 2020

Mali: 3 European hostages, 1 Malian politician freed


By Baba Ahmed, The Associated Press on October 8, 2020.

FILE - Undated file frame grab from video, posted online by militant group Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, that shows hostage Sophie Petronin in an unknown location, with a caption reading in Arabic 'My name is Sophie Petronin.' Islamic extremists have freed French aid worker Petronin, who was kidnapped back in 2016, and a prominent Malian politician Soumaila Cisse after holding him hostage for more than six months an official said Tuesday Oct. 6, 2020. (Militant Video via AP)

BAMAKO, Mali – The Malian government says a total of four hostages held by al-Qaida-linked militants have been freed and are now aboard a flight to the capital.

In a statement released late Thursday, Mali’s government indicated that along with prominent Malian politician Soumaila Cisse and French aid worker Sophie Petronin, two Italian nationals – Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Ciacco – had also been released.

While relatives of the first two said they had been notified it was not previously known that the two Italians also had been freed.

The flight took off just before 7 p.m. local time (1900 GMT) from the northern town of Tessalit and was expected to arrive about 2 1/2 hours later, presidential spokesman Adam Thiam said.

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Mali’s presidency confirmed Thursday that prominent Malian politician Soumaila Cisse and French aid worker Sophie Petronin are aboard a flight to the capital, Bamako, after being freed by al-Qaida-linked militants.

The flight took off just before 7 p.m. local time (1900 GMT) from the northern town of Tessalit and was expected to arrive about 2 1/2 hours later, presidential spokesman Adam Thiam said.

Petronin, 75, who was helping orphans at the time of her abduction, had been held by Islamic extremists since December 2016 while Cisse, 70, was kidnapped earlier this year.

The French Embassy in Bamako’s Twitter account shared the news, adding: “AT LAST!”

The hostages’ release followed the freeing by Malian authorities of nearly 200 jihadist prisoners over the weekend, which had fueled speculation that a prisoner exchange was imminent.

There was no immediate information on whether a ransom was paid. Extremist groups in the Sahel have long funded their organizations through kidnappings.

It also was not immediately known whether any other Western hostages were among the group. The al-Qaida-linked group known as JNIM and its associates were believed to be holding at least seven others foreigners in addition to Petronin.

The other known hostages are Italians Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Ciacco, Australian doctor Ken Elliott, Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, South African national Christo Bothma, Swiss national Beatrice Stockly and Romanian citizen Julian Ghergut.

Petronin had appeared 18 months after her abduction in a video released on Telegram by JNIM alongside the Colombian nun.

In March, extremists ambushed Cisse’s vehicle while he and his entourage were campaigning in northern Mali. The three-time presidential candidate was later re-elected to his parliament seat while in captivity.

The only proof that he was still alive was a handwritten letter delivered in August. Negotiations for his release had appeared to stall after a military coup overthrew democratically-elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who beat Cisse in the 2013 and 2018 elections.

While a transitional civilian government has been chosen, new elections are being organized with a 2022 deadline, providing a possible new political avenue for Cisse.

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Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.

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