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Was French hostage swapped for detained jihadists?

AFP | French President François Hollande greets Serge Lazarevic upon his arrival in France.

A day after French President François Hollande announced the release of Serge Lazarevic, who was kidnapped in Mali in November 2011, the contrast between the headlines in France and Mali could not have been starker.

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While French news sites on Wednesday splashed images of a smiling Hollande greeting Lazarevic on the tarmac of a military base near Paris, Malian media displayed images of an unsmiling man sporting a Salafi beard and turban.

“Libération de Mohamed Ali Ag Wadoussene,” read the banner headline of Malian daily Le Républicain, while the Nouvel Horizon featured a story about the Malian Human Rights Association accusing the Malian government of liberating four prisoners in exchange for Lazarevic’s release.

On Tuesday, shortly after Hollande announced Lazarevic’s release, the Mali-based news site, Sahelien.com, reported that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had released their 50-year-old French captive in exchange for two jihadists in Malian custody. By Wednesday, a number of news organisations said at least four – some put the figure at five – inmates were freed in the prisoner swap.

The man dominating Malian news coverage, however, was the turbaned, bearded Wadoussene – an unfamiliar figure in the international community, but an infamous character for many Malians.

Earlier this year, Wadoussene hit the Francophone West African media headlines when he was recaptured in a celebrated Malian commando raid weeks after he escaped from a Bamako jail. For Malian audiences accustomed to the spectacular failures of their security services, gripping media accounts of the security operation –including monitoring Wadoussene’s girlfriend known as “Rose” – were a welcome break.

Barely six months later, Malians were discovering that the target of that spectacular commando raid had been suddenly lost in one fell swoop.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Moctar Mariko, head of the Malian Human Rights Association, condemned the alleged prisoner swap for Lazarevic’s freedom. "Even if this is considered a success for French diplomacy, we see it as a serious violation of the rights of the Malian victims,” said Mariko. “We do not understand. We are the ones suffering here in Mali. If we have to resort to exchanging a Malian terrorist for a French hostage, it means we have nothing left going for us."

A history of controversial prisoner swaps

French authorities have refused to confirm or deny numerous reports of a prisoner swap and ransom payment in exchange for Lazarevic’s release.

But France is widely known to pay million-dollar ransoms to terrorist groups to secure the release of French nationals in the past.

Alain Marsaud, a former French anti-terrorism judge, told Reuters he had no doubt France had paid a ransom in some form. “Either you adopt...[US President Barack] Obama's policy in which you don't negotiate and then you see your hostages assassinated, or you negotiate without admitting it," he explained.

When asked about the issue in September, Hollande maintained that Paris neither paid ransoms nor exchanged hostages for prisoners. "That does not mean other countries don't," he said. "Some countries have done it to help us. I admit it."

In his statement announcing the French hostage’s release Tuesday, Hollande thanked Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou for their “personal engagement” in helping secure the release of the last French hostage.

Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou
Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou

The Sahel region – a desolate badland stretching across the porous borders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad – is no stranger to controversial prisoner swaps.

In 2010, Mauritania temporarily recalled its ambassador in Mali to protest the release of Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou, a high-profile Mauritanian jihadist in Malian custody. Kheirou was released in exchange for French hostage Pierre Camatte, according to news reports.

But in the world of jihadist hostage-takings and prisoner swaps, chickens have a way of coming home to roost – with deadly security consequences.

Barely two years after his release, Mauritanian militant Kheirou went on to form the jihadist group MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) which in turn kidnapped Frenchman Gilberto Rodrigues Leal in Mali. The retired French aid worker was declared dead in March 2014.

Jihadist released in exchange for his captive’s freedom

The irony of the latest prisoner swap reports is that the newly freed jihadist Wadoussene was responsible for the abduction of Lazarevic and fellow Frenchman Philippe Verdon. The two Frenchmen were in a hotel in the central Malian town of Hombori on November 24, 2011, when they were seized by AQIM militants. Verdon was found dead in July 2013.

If the latest reports are true, it would mean the al Qaeda militant responsible for Lazarevic’s kidnapping was released in exchange for his own former captive’s freedom.

While Lazarevic’s family has welcomed his release and return to France, the families of some of Wadoussene’s victims in Mali have expressed dismay in interviews with local media.

Speaking to the Malian daily, Le Républicain, Sidi Sofara, brother of one of Wadoussene’s victims, complained that the life of a French hostage was worth more than that of his late brother. “What is the weight of a Frenchman compared to a Malian? This is a terrible outrage. I am disappointed and annoyed by the behaviour of the Malian authorities, who sacrifice the lives of their own people for the benefit of foreigners," said Sidi.

But it’s not just Malians who have condemned the prisoner swap.

Ghislaine Dupont (right) and Claude Verlon were captured and killed in Kidal, Mali, in November 2013.
Ghislaine Dupont (right) and Claude Verlon were captured and killed in Kidal, Mali, in November 2013.

In France, the move was criticised by a group that calls itself the "Friends of Ghislaine Dupont" after the Radio France Internationale (RFI) journalist who was kidnapped and killed in 2013 while on a mission in the northern Malian city of Kidal. Dupont’s sound engineer, Claude Verlon, was also captured and killed in the attack.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Friends of Ghislaine Dupont group noted that, “The release of Serge Lazarevic resulted in the release of several hijackers, including Mohamed Ali Ag Wadoussene and Heiba Ag Acherif, the very people responsible for the abduction of Serge Lazarevic and Philippe Verdon in 2011.” The statement noted that the two released jihadists belong to “the same group that claimed the vile assassination, on November 2, 2013, of Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon minutes after their abduction in Kidal in Mali."

Besides the security implications of releasing hardened, hard-to-catch jihadists, for the families of al Qaeda’s victims, prisoner swaps risk prolonging their long – and often futile – wait for justice.

Addressing these concerns, the Friends of Ghislaine Dupont group noted that,
“We hope Serge Lazarevic’s return to freedom encourages French and Malian authorities to redouble their efforts to help investigators clarify the circumstances and motives” behind the two RFI journalists’ killings.

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