Mali confirms AQIM militants swapped for French hostage
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Four militants belonging to al Qaeda’s North African branch were handed over in exchange for the release of French hostage Serge Lazarevic (pictured), Malian Justice Minister Mohamed Ali Bathily confirmed to FRANCE 24 Friday.
“Yes we did it and we've done it for Malians before too,” Bathily told FRANCE 24.
“Here it concerned a citizen who comes from a country that came to help us, when our country was in a critical situation,” he continued, referring to France’s 2013 military intervention against insurgents in northern Mali.
“The authorities of his country were fighting to release the hostages, Mali for its reputation and honour could only help to save the life of the hostage.”
Verdon, who suffered from an ulcer and tachycardia – an abnormally fast heartbeat – was found shot dead last year, and those close to his family suggested he had been executed because he was weak.
The French government has so far refused to comment on reports that several al Qaeda prisoners, including those involved in kidnapping Lazarevic in Mali in 2011, were released in exchange for his freedom.
"There were negotiations, diplomatic exchanges [and] discretion," government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll has said.
Lazarevic was welcomed by French President François Hollande at a military airport outside Paris a day after his release was announced.
"Life is good when you have freedom. I didn't know what it was like to be free. I had forgotten what it is like to be free. I will never forget it again," Lazarevic told reporters.
"Freedom is dearer than anything"
"Be careful, because freedom is dearer than anything. When you've been taken, when you're being abused, when you're lost, when you're close to death, you think more about life," he added.
The French president added, "Welcome back, Mr Lazarevic, we've been waiting for you for three years."
Lazarevic was the last of more than a dozen French citizens taken captive in recent years, with those held in Africa reaching a high of 15 last year. Four journalists held by Syrian jihadists were released earlier this year.
Shortly after news of Lazarevic’s release broke on Tuesday, FRANCE 24 and its sister radio station RFI identified two of the four released prisoners as Mohamed Ali Ag Wadoussene and Heiba Ag Acherif, both of whom were allegedly involved in the Frenchman’s abduction.
The negotiations for his release were also said to involve a close associate of Iyad Ag Ghali, the head of the jihadist group Ansar Dine, which recently called for combat against France.
The International Federation of Human Rights and the Malian chapter of Amnesty International slammed the release of prisoners suspected of "grave human rights violations" in Mali.
Upon his release, Lazarevic was taken immediately to a military hospital for check-ups before returning to the comfort of his family, according to a diplomatic source.
"The doctor gave him a check-up on the plane and he's doing well," this source said.
In his three years in captivity, Lazarevic appeared in several AQIM videos, the most recent of which was in November in which he said he was gravely ill and believed his life was in danger.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)