The last French hostage still held in the world, Sophie Pétronin, as well as Soumaïla Cissé, leader of the Malian opposition, presumed to be in the hands of jihadists until then, have been released, announced Thursday, October 8, the Malian presidency on social networks. .
The Presidency of the Republic “confirms the release of Soumaïla Cissé and Sophie Pétronin. The ex-hostages are on their way to Bamako, ”she said on Twitter.
Later that evening, the Malian government also announced the release of Italians Nicola Chiacchio and Pier Luigi Maccalli, a priest kidnapped in Niger in 2018. The rare signal the two Italian hostages had given since their kidnappings was a video that had been taken received the Nigerian newspaper “Aïr Info” in March 2020.
Ms. Pétronin and Soumaïla Cissé “are on the plane for Bamako”, said an official at Tessalit airport (north), quoted by AFP, who said he saw them board. They “said they were happy before getting on the plane,” he said on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the case.
No details were initially provided on the circumstances of this announced release, which had been taking shape since the weekend and ended a ordeal of nearly four years for Ms. Pétronin and more than six months for the Malian opponent. No information was either provided on the state of health of Sophie Pétronin, 75, and Soumaïla Cissé, 70. The release of the two Italian hostages had not been mentioned until then.
A source close to the negotiations told AFP that the operation had been complicated until the “last moment”. “There were some problems. But, thank God, it all ends well ”
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Sophie Pétronin: the end of four years of captivity
Sophie Pétronin, 75 years old today, was kidnapped on December 24, 2016 by armed men in Gao (northern Mali), where she lived and headed for years a children’s aid organization.
Since his capture, the French humanitarian had appeared in videos released in 2017 and 2018 by the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM) alliance of jihadist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
The last one where we see her other than in photos, published in mid-June 2018, showed her very tired, with emaciated face, calling on French President Emmanuel Macron. The images of the hostage never ceased to alarm the family. Relatives mobilized without stopping for his release, urging President Emmanuel Macron and the French government to agree to negotiate with the kidnappers.
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Soumaïla Cissé: an unprecedented kidnapping
Soumaïla Cissé, 70, former minister and leader of the parliamentary opposition, is for his part the most eminent national figure kidnapped in Mali since the independence and jihadist rebellions of 2012 plunged the country into a deep security crisis.
The spiral of violence has caused, along with inter-communal tensions, thousands of civilian and military deaths, despite the deployment of French and international forces, and has spread to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
The fate of this opponent, second three times in the presidential election, was one of the rallying cries of the protest for several months against former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. The latter ended up being overthrown by a putsch on August 18.
Both were believed to be held by armed Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
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Negotiations and exchanges
Their release completes an operation whose bottom remains obscure. It was preceded by the release, since the weekend by the new Malian authorities under the control of the military, of a considerable number of prisoners – more than 200 years old according to an Al-Qaeda news outlet – presented by Malian officials and jihadists.
These releases, as well as statements by Malian officials speaking on condition of anonymity, had for several days raised the hope that Sophie Pétronin and Soumaïla Cissé would find their families. At the same time, Sophie Pétronin’s son, Sébastien Chadaud, was taking the plane to Bamako.
The Malian authorities have, until Thursday evening, observed total silence, the French authorities invoking for their part the requirement of total discretion, severely undermined by four days of advertising. For the moment, neither France nor Mali have communicated on the identity and membership of the released jihadists.
Emmanuel Macron “learned with immense relief the release” of Sophie Pétronin, “held hostage in Mali for nearly four years,” the Elysee said in a statement Thursday evening. “Happy to know that it is free”, the President of the Republic “particularly thanks the Malian authorities for this liberation” and “assures them of France’s entire will to support Mali in the fight it is waging with perseverance against terrorism in the Sahel ”.
“Sophie Pétronin is free this evening. After so many years of suffering for her and her loved ones, she can finally find her loved ones. Thank you to Mali for its release ”reacted Florence Parly, the French Minister of the Armed Forces. The head of French diplomacy agrees: “Sophie Pétronin has finally found freedom! We share with his family and loved ones an immense joy, awaited for almost four years. My warmest thanks to the Malian authorities, whose fight against terrorism we will continue to support in #Sahel »Wrote Jean-Yves Le Drian on Twitter.
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