Kidnapped French aid worker freed in Mali

Sophie Pétronin was abducted near the northern Malian city of Gao on December 24, 2016. Keystone

Sophie Pétronin, a Malian opposition politician and two Italians were released in Bamako, Mali, on Thursday night, ending their lengthy captivity in the hands of Islamist insurgents.

This content was published on October 9, 2020 - 08:42
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Pétronin, 75, ran a charity for malnourished and orphaned Malian children. She was abducted near the northern city of Gao on December 24, 2016.

The hostages were met with jubilant scenes as they descended from a plane at Bamako airport. Pétronin’s son Sebastian Chadaud-Pétronin, who is based in Switzerland, hugged her, crying out "Maman! Maman! Maman! Maman!” in videos and photographs shared on social media.

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“Deep down, I was certain that I would come back,” the elderly aid worker said. “That I wouldn't die in between. And I told myself, don't give too much importance to death. Because you don't know where, when or how it's going to happen.”

“So I told myself ‘It doesn't matter. Go ahead, stay strong, hang on,’” she continued. “It's what [my son] said. It’s what he said in a video: ‘Hang on, hold on.’ It's what I did.”

She told reporters that she intends to return to Gao to ensure that the children's aid organisation she headed continues to operate. "I made a commitment for the children," she said. "I'm going to go to France, Switzerland and then I'm going to come back and see what's going on here.”

Other hostages

Among the other hostages released was Malian opposition politician Soumaïla Cissé. The 70-year-old politician, who served as finance minister in the 1990s, was kidnapped by gunmen while campaigning for legislative elections in the northern region of Timbuktu in March.

The two other hostages are Pierluigi Maccalli, an Italian priest and missionary who was taken in September 2018 in Niger, close to the Burkina Faso border, and Nicola Chiacchio, who is thought to have been a tourist when he was captured.

The release of the hostages announced earlier by Mali’s presidency, follows a tense few days as reports that Malian authorities had freed scores of suspected militants over the weekend fuelled expectations of an imminent prisoner swap. It was unclear whether or not a ransom was paid.

The Malian government said in a statement that the release was obtained thanks to efforts by Mali security services, and international partners, but gave no further details.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in a message on Twitter that he spoke with Pétronin, and that he will welcome her when she returns to France on Friday. Italy's foreign ministry praised the collaboration between their intelligence and government personnel and Malian authorities.

The release is a significant victory for Mali's interim leadership who are overseeing an 18-month transition back to civilian rule after the August 18 overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

The West African nation has struggled to find stability since 2012 when jihadist fighters hijacked an insurrection by Tuareg separatists. The militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have used Mali as a launch pad for attacks in the region.

A previous version of this article referred to Pétronin as having Swiss citizenship; according to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, she is a French national only, and does not hold Swiss nationality.

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