French aid worker freed by captors returns home from Mali

AFP , Friday 9 Oct 2020

'The French rejoice with me to finally have you back, dear Sophie Petronin. Welcome home!' Macron tweeted

French aid worker Sophie Petronin was reunited with her family on home soil Friday, a day after being freed by insurgents in Mali who abducted the 75-year-old on Christmas eve nearly four years ago.

President Emmanuel Macron and other officials greeted Petronin, France's last known citizen to be held hostage anywhere in the world, as she stepped off a plane at the Villacoublay airbase south of Paris shortly after midday.

Wearing a face mask and a white headscarf, she hugged family members including three grand-children on the tarmac and spoke for several minutes with Macron, who accompanied her to the base's small terminal.

No public statements were made, though Macron had earlier called Petronin's release an "immense relief".

"The French rejoice with me to finally have you back, dear Sophie Petronin. Welcome home!" Macron tweeted after meeting her.

Petronin was released by her captors along with a prominent Malian politician, Soumaila Cisse, and two Italian hostages, who were also on their way home Friday, according to an airport source in Mali's capital Bamako.

Cisse, a three-time presidential candidate and former opposition leader, was also hugged by loved ones at the Bamako airport and greeted by cheering crowds on his way home.

"It was a difficult period, but it has been overcome," the 70-year-old Cisse told AFP.

Italian priest Pier Luigi Maccalli, who was abducted in neighbouring Niger in 2018, and Nicola Chiacchio, who went missing last year while on a solo bicycle trip, were also freed.

Mali's government has not revealed the circumstances of the releases, which followed talks with hostage-takers.

But Malian authorities freed more than 100 prisoners over the weekend, sparking speculation of a swap for Petronin and Cisse.

- 'Mama Sophie' -

Late Thursday, a frail-looking Petronin, who is known as "Mama Sophie" and dedicated years of her life to a charity for malnourished children, was twirled around by her son, Sebastien Chadaud, as she arrived in Bamako.

Footage shared on social media showed the mother and son with their foreheads pressed together, as Petronin told him: "You were there by my side telling me, hang in there."

In an unexpected development, the Malian prime minister's office announced Thursday that two Italian nationals had also been freed.

Mali's government has been struggling against a brutal jihadist insurgency that emerged in the north in 2012, which has since spread to central Mali as well as to Burkina Faso and Niger.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in the conflict and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and kidnappings are common.

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

Petronin was abducted by gunmen on December 24, 2016, in the northern city of Gao, where she did her charitable work.

Cisse was kidnapped on March 25 while campaigning in his home region of Niafounke, central Mali, ahead of parliamentary elections.

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

Speaking to reporters, Petronin thanked the Malian and French governments for their help.

"For Mali, I will pray and implore the blessing and the mercy of Allah, because I am a Muslim," she said.

"You say Sophie, but it's Mariam, you have before you," she added.

Petronin appeared in good spirits despite concerns about her health after a 2018 hostage video showed her looking emaciated.

The footage triggered alarm among her family members, who pressured Macron to negotiate with her captors.

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

- Difficult talks -

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

The intermediary said releasing prisoners had been unavoidable. "Yes, terrorists were released," he said. "We had to obtain the release."

The office of Mali's prime minister said the four hostages had been held by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims.

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

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 leading to Keita's ouster over his perceived inability to crush the Islamist insurgency.

Several hostages remain detained by militant groups in the Sahel.

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