Four hostages freed by al-Qaida-linked militants have arrived in the Malian capital
BAMAKO, Mali — A prominent Malian politician and three European hostages freed by al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists made it to the Malian capital late Thursday where they were greeted by family members and supporters.
French humanitarian Sophie Petronin, who had been abducted nearly four years while helping orphans in northern Mali, arrived in a flowing white traditional dress where she was embraced by her son on the tarmac.
The son of three-time Malian presidential candidate Soumaila Cisse also stood by to greet him as the former hostages descended the plane.
While their relatives had been notified of their freedom on Tuesday, news that two Italian hostages also had been released came only late Thursday in a government statement once the flight had left northern Mali.
“Father Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio, kidnapped in Africa between 2018 and 2019, are free and are returning to Italy!” tweeted Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte.
Maccalli is a Roman Catholic missionary priest from the African Missionary Society (SMA) who was kidnapped from his Bomoanga parish in Niamey, Niger, according to the Avvenire newspaper of the Italian bishops conference.
Chiacchio was taken from central Mali in 2019, according to Menastream, an independent risk and research consultancy firm specializing in the Sahel and North Africa. The two men were believed to be held by same extremists after a video was released of them together back in April.
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the news as “a great relief.”
The hostages’ release came just days after Malian authorities freed nearly 200 jihadist prisoners over the weekend, which had fueled speculation that a prisoner exchange was imminent.
But there was a 48-hour delay between relatives of Cisse and Petronin were first notified and when the former hostages showed up for the flight in Tessalit. Malian authorities indicated their release had taken place Tuesday.
There was no immediate information on whether a ransom was paid. Extremist groups in the Sahel have long funded their organizations through kidnappings.
The al-Qaida-linked group known as JNIM and its associates are also believed to be holding Australian doctor Ken Elliott, Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, South African national Christo Bothma, Swiss national Beatrice Stockly and Romanian citizen Julian Ghergut.
In March, extremists ambushed Cisse’s vehicle while he and his entourage were campaigning in northern Mali. The three-time presidential candidate was later re-elected to his parliament seat while in captivity and now emerges as the front-runner for the 2022 election.
Negotiations for his release had appeared to stall after an Aug. 18 military coup overthrew democratically-elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who beat Cisse in both the 2013 and 2018 elections. The military junta has handed over power to a transitional government now tasked with organizing elections, though the junta’s leader still serves as vice president.
Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in Rome; Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.