French, Italian captives freed with top politician in Mali

Bamako (AFP) –

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Mali announced Thursday the release of an elderly French aid worker, two Italian captives and a top Malian politician, who were all believed to have been held by jihadists.

French President Emmanuel Macron immediately voiced "immense relief" at the release of the woman, the last French hostage in the world, and expressed France's continued support for Mali in its fight against an Islamist insurgency.

The presidency tweeted Thursday that Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, 75, and Mali politician Soumaila Cisse, 70, were on their way to the capital Bamako following their release.

The announcement came after several days of uncertainty about the status of the pair, sparked after the government released over 100 suspected and convicted jihadists.

In an unexpected development, the prime minister's office also announced Thursday that two Italian nationals named Nicola Chiacchio and Pier Luigi Maccalli had been freed.

Petronin was abducted by gunmen on December 24, 2016, in the northern city of Gao, where she worked for a children's charity.

She was the last French national held hostage in the world.

Cisse, a 70-year-old former opposition leader and three-time presidential candidate, was kidnapped on March 25 while campaigning in his home region of Niafounke, in central Mali, ahead of parliamentary elections.

Chiacchio, a priest, was abducted in neighbouring Niger in 2018. Nicola Chiacchio went missing in northern Mali in 2019 while on a solo bicycle trip, according to Italian media.

-'Emaciated and fatigued'-

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio all hailed the release of the Italians who Di Maio said were well.

Conte thanked the intelligence services and the foreign office.

Mali's government on Thursday gave no indication of the circumstances of the hostages' release, nor did it provide information on the health of the former captives.

There have long been concerns about Petronin's health while in captivity, however.

She had appeared in two videos broadcast by the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist alliance GSIM after her capture.

But the last video, in 2018, showed her looking emaciated and fatigued, and triggered alarm among her family memebers who pressured Macron to negotiate with her captors.

France's president several times said that his services were working "tirelessly" for her release.

"To her family, to her loved ones, I send a message of sympathy," Macron tweeted on Thursday.

"To the Malian authorities, thank you. The fight against terrorism in the Sahel continues".

Mali's former colonial power France has 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel as part of its anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane.

After first emerging in northern Mali in 2012, a brutal jihadist insurgency has spread to the centre of the country as well as Burkina Faso and Niger.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in the conflict and hundreds of thousands have had to flee their homes. Kidnappings are also common.

-'We had to'-

Very few details have been released about how Mali secured the hostages' release.

One of the hostage negotiators, who requested anonymity, told AFP that the talks remained difficult up to the end, however.

On Thursday, Mali's prime minister's office said that the four hostages had been held by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

The alliance comprises several jihadist groups aligned to al-Qaeda, and has claimed responsibility for some of the biggest attacks in the Sahel.

Mali released over 100 jihadist prisoners to the volatile centre of the country over the weekend, and in the northern town of Tessalit, a security official told AFP this week.

The rare mass release sparked immediate speculation on social media that the government was conducting a prisoner swap for Petronin and Cisse.

Both the Malian and French governments declined to comment on the affair over the following days, despite intense media interest.

French officials, in particular, cited the need to maintain discretion.

There had been little or no speculation about the release of the Italian hostages, however, despite the broadcast of a hostage video featuring the pair in March this year.

The prisoner release came with an interim government due to govern Mali for 18 months before staging elections after a military junta overthrew president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August.

The kidnapping of former opposition leader Cisse was one of the factors that fuelled popular protests which led to the ouster of Keita over his perceived inability to crush the Islamist insurgency.

The intermediary involved in the negotiations told AFP on Thursday that releasing the jihadists was necessary.

"Yes, terrorists were released," he said. "We had to obtain the release," he added.

Several other hostages remain detained by militant groups in the Sahel.