DAKAR – Four hostages of armed insurgents in Mali were released Thursday, days after the country’s newly formed government released around 200 prisoners, including some suspected of being jihadists.
The four hostages released included Soumaïla Cissé, a prominent Malian politician, Sophie Pétronin, a French aide who had been in custody for almost four years, and two Italians: Pierluigi Maccalli, a priest who was kidnapped in neighboring Niger in 2018, and Nicola Chiacchio, who was kidnapped on a solo bike tour last year.
The government, which took power in September after a military coup, announced the release on Thursday evening. It said they were secured thanks to the efforts of the country’s intelligence services, the armed forces, Mali’s partners and a special crisis unit led by a former prime minister, but did not disclose details of the conditions under which the hostages were released.
The government’s release of prisoners last weekend had sparked speculation in Mali that an agreement had been reached to free the hostages.
The release of the hostages was received with joy in Mali. Mr Cissé, a 70-year-old former opposition leader who ran three times for president, was kidnapped by armed men in March while campaigning for parliamentary elections.
The releases were also welcomed in France, where the case of Ms Pétronin was followed closely.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement that he was “very relieved” to learn that Ms. Pétronin, 75, had been released after Malian authorities announced that the hostages were en route to the country’s capital, Bamako, be.
“The President of the Republic particularly thanks the Malian authorities for this release,” said a statement by the French Presidency. “He assures you of the total will of France to support Mali in the fight it is waging persistently against terrorism.”
French authorities said they did not know whether a ransom had been paid for the hostages and gave little more details about the operation.
“It is the Malian authorities who have fully dealt with this situation and this exemption,” said Gabriel Attal, spokesman for the French government, to the broadcaster France 2. “I have no information about any compensation that would have been provided for this release. “
Over 5,000 French soldiers are deployed in the Sahel zone to fight against Islamist insurgents. Last year two French soldiers were killed in a raid in Burkina Faso that freed four hostages, two of them French.
In Italy, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio welcomed the “good news” of the release. “Father Pier Luigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio are finally free and healthy,” Di Maio said in a tweet.
The Malian authorities said the four hostages were held by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslim or the Islamic and Muslim Support Group, a coalition of al-Qaeda groups in Mali.
Mr. Cissé was greeted by a hero at home in Badalabougou, a district of Bamako, where he stood out of the sunroof of a car and waved to a crowd of followers blowing vuvuzelas and waving cell phones.
“I spent six months in conditions that, as you know very well, were extremely difficult in almost complete isolation,” Cissé told Malian television. “But I have to admit that I have never experienced physical or verbal violence.”
The release of Mr Cissé had been a key call for protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, which escalated in the summer before he was overthrown in the military coup.
Ms. Pétronin, who ran a malnourished child charity in Mali, narrowly escaped an initial kidnapping in the eastern city of Gao in 2012 and fled the country, but returned soon after. She was abducted in Gao on December 24, 2016 and has been held since then.
Ms. Pétronin returned to France on Friday and was greeted by Mr. Macron.
“Deep down, I was sure that I would come back,” Ms. Pétronin told the French radio station RFI after she landed in Bamako on Thursday and was greeted with a hug by her son Sébastien Chadaud-Pétronin. “I never gave up,” she said.
Ms. Pétronin said that after spending some time in France, she would eventually return to Mali. “I’ll come back to see what’s going on,” she said, looking frail but in good spirits.
Her son stood next to her sounding more cautious. “We have to be sensible,” said Chadaud-Pétronin. “You will not go where you want to go.”
Ruth Maclean reported from Dakar and Elian Peltier from London. Constant Méheut reported from Paris and Cheick Amadou Diouara from Bamako, Mali.