Is the end of the ordeal near for Sophie Pétronin? Sophie Pétronin’s family have suggested that after almost four years of detention in an unknown location, her transfer from northern Mali to freedom was underway. The situation remains particularly uncertain. At the same time, Mali was living to the rhythm of information on the release of Soumaïla Cissé, former minister and presidential candidate, kidnapped for his part more than six months ago and subject with Sophie Pétronin to an exchange for dozens of jihadists, according to various sources close to the negotiations.
However, the Malian and French authorities have kept total silence, refraining from confirming that the release of dozens of jihadists (206 according to an Al-Qaida communications body) spread between the weekend and this Tuesday aimed at the release of two hostages, and that the latter two had changed hands. Sophie Pétronin’s family, itself, expressed a lot of hope, without having absolute certainty. Sophie Pétronin’s son, Sébastien Chadaud, took a flight via Paris on Tuesday to Bamako, the Malian capital, where he arrived in the early afternoon.
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“We can say that she is free”
Sophie Pétronin’s nephew, Lionel Granouillac, who has also strongly mobilized for his aunt in recent years, has been in telephone contact with Sébastien Chadaud. “Compared to what Sébastien told me, to the evolution since this afternoon and this early evening, we can say that she is free”, he said on the phone to Agence France -Hurry. “It is currently in transit between Gao and Bamako,” he added. However, Sébastien Chadaud was not in visual or verbal contact with her, he said, urging caution. “We, the family, are very confident, we wait, but we are still in this state of mind,” he said.
Its caution could be dictated by the complexity of a delicate operation and the logistics to be implemented in a largely semi-desert country as large as more than twice France. Notables of Tessalit joined by Agence France-Presse reported preparations to bring together Sophie Pétronin and Soumaïla Cissé in this northern city, to transport them by plane to Bamako. They spoke of intermediaries who had to take care of both. Sophie Pétronin, 75, and Soumaïla Cissé, 70, former minister, presidential candidate and leader of the opposition, are believed to have been held up by armed Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. Their release would complete an operation whose bottom remains obscure.
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Removed in December 2016
Sophie Pétronin, originally from Bordeaux (south-west of France) was kidnapped on December 24, 2016 by armed men in Gao (north of Mali), where she lived and headed for years a children’s aid organization . She appeared in videos released in 2017 and 2018 by the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), an alliance of jihadist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The last where we see her other than in photos, published in mid-June 2018, shows her very tired, her face emaciated, calling on French President Emmanuel Macron.
The images of the hostage never ceased to alarm the family who said she was ill and feared for her life. Relatives mobilized without stopping for his release, repeatedly urging President Emmanuel Macron not to forget Sophie Pétronin and to agree to negotiate with the kidnappers. Emmanuel Macron has assured several times that the French services were working for his release “relentlessly”, but with discretion.
At least eight other hostages
Soumaïla Cissé, second three times in the presidential election, was kidnapped on March 25 while he was on a legislative campaign in the region of Timbuktu (north-west). In the absence of formal proof, suspicion hangs over the jihadist group of Amadou Koufa, active in central Mali and affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Soumaïla Cissé is the most prominent 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 Burkino Faso and Niger. The fate of Soumaïla Cissé was one of the rallying cries of the protest of several months against the former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. The latter ended up being overthrown by a putsch on August 18. The release of Soumaïla Cissé and Sophie Pétronin would add considerable credibility to the transitional authorities installed and dominated by the military. At least eight other Western hostages are said to remain in detention in the Sahel.