Authorities in Mali have confirmed the release of an elderly French aid worker, two Italian captives and a top Malian politician, all believed to have been held by jihadists.
A tweet on Thursday said that French woman Sophie Pétronin, 75, and Soumaïla Cissé, 70, were on their way to the capital Bamako.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, immediately welcomed the release of Pétronin, the last French hostage in the world, and expressed his country’s continued support for Mali in its fight against terrorism.
“Sophie Pétronin is free. Held hostage for nearly four years in Mali, her release is a great relief,” Macron wrote on Twitter.
“I think I haven’t realized yet. She’s on the plane,” her son Sébastien Chadaud-Pétronin, who flew to Mali early this week on the expectation of her release, told France Info radio.
The two Italian hostages are Pierluigi Maccalli, a priest and missionary who was taken in September 2018 in Niger, close to the Burkina Faso border, and Nicola Chiacchio, who is thought to have been a tourist when he was captured. The two appeared on a video in April 2020.
Italy’s foreign ministry praised the collaboration between their intelligence and government personnel and Malian authorities.
The announcement on Thursday came after several days of uncertainty about the release of Pétronin and Cissé who were believed to have been held by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants. Sources told media on Tuesday that Pétronin and Cissé had been released, but Pétronin’s family remained cautious.
Speculation about their release had began to circulate in the conflict-ridden Sahel state over the weekend, when the government released over 100 suspected and convicted jihadists.
Pétronin was abducted by gunmen on 24 December 2016, in the northern city of Gao, where she worked for a children’s charity.
Cissé, a 70-year-old former opposition leader and three-time presidential candidate, was kidnapped on 25 March while campaigning in parliamentary elections in his home region of Niafounké, in central Mali.
Mali’s government on Thursday gave no indication of the circumstances of the hostages’ release, nor did it provide information on the health of either Pétronin or Cissé.
One of the intermediaries who was involved in the release negotiations, who requested anonymity, said the process “was not easy”.
Mali released over 100 jihadist prisoners to the volatile centre of the country over the weekend, and in the northern town of Tessalit, a security official told AFP this week.
The rare mass release sparked immediate speculation on social media that the government was conducting a prisoner swap for Pétronin and Cissé.
Both the Malian and French governments declined to comment on the affair over the following days, despite intense media interest.
The kidnapping of former opposition leader Cissé was one of the factors that fuelled popular protests which led to the ousting of Keita over his perceived inability to tackle jihadists and the Islamist insurgency. Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed in the conflict, which has often taken on an ethnic dimension.
The intermediary involved in the negotiations told AFP on Thursday that releasing the jihadists was necessary.
“Yes, terrorists were released,” he said. “We had to obtain the release.”
Several other hostages remain detained by militant groups in the Sahel.