The Telegraph . Fri, October 9, 2020, 10:26 AM GMT+2
A 75-year old French aid worker and a top Malian politician captured by presumed jihadists have been reunited with their families after their release along with two Italian hostages.
In emotional scenes, Sophie Petronin, the last French citizen known to be held hostage anywhere in the world since her abduction in 2016, was embraced by her son as she touched down in Mali’s capital, Bamako on Thursday night.
“Maman,” shouted Sebastien Chadaud as he twirled his mother her in the air. Pressing their foreheads together, a white-robed, frail-looking Mrs Petronin told her son: “You were there by my side telling me, hang on in there.”
She returned to France on Friday, where she was greeted by President Emmanuel Macron at the Villacoublay airbase south of Paris shortly after midday.
Politician Soumaila Cisse, a three-time presidential candidate and former opposition leader, was also hugged by loved ones and greeted by cheering crowds on his way home.
“It was a difficult period, but it has been overcome,” said Mr Cisse, 70, also in white robes. He was abducted in March this year.
Italian priest Pier Luigi Maccalli, who was abducted in neighbouring Niger in 2018, and Nicola Chiacchio, who went missing last year during a solo bicycle trip, were also freed. Hopes of rescuing the two hostages were revived in April when a short proof-of-life video was released online showing the men sitting side by side, sporting long beards and traditional clothing, though looking frail and thin.
The four were being held by members of Jamaat Nosrat al-Islam wal-Mouslimin, JNIM, an umbrella coalition of al-Qaeda-aligned groups behind some of the biggest attacks in the Sahel, according to Malian officials.
Mali’s government has not revealed the circumstances of the releases, which follow talks with the hostage-takers. Malian authorities freed more than 100 prisoners over the weekend.
Le Monde cited a negotiator as saying a large ransom was paid. “To free hostages, you have to abide by two rules that don’t change: jail releases and payment of a ransom,” he was cited as saying. The Elysée has denied any money changed hands.
It nevertheless constitutes a PR coup for the new transitional government recently put in place after a military putsch in August that forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita from power.
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 been displaced. Kidnappings are also common.
French aid worker Sophie Petronin who was freed from captivity in the hands of Islamist insurgents, speaks to the media in Bamako, Mali October 9, – REUTERS/ PAUL LOGERIE
Mr Macron expressed “immense relief” at the release of Mrs Petronin, known as “Mama Sophie” after dedicating years of her life to a charity for malnourished children. He is due to welcome her back in France.
The government’s move to free prisoners over the weekend had sparked speculation of a swap for her and Mr Cisse.
In an unexpected development, the prime minister’s office also announced Thursday that two Italian nationals had also been freed. It was not immediately clear whether they had arrived in Bamako on the same flight.
Mrs Petronin was abducted by gunmen on Christmas Eve, 2016, in the northern city of Gao, where she worked for the children’s charity.
Mr 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 all hailed the release of the Italians, who Mr Di Maio said were well.
In Crema, a city east of Milan in Lombardy, bells tolled in the cathedral to celebrate the news that “Father Gigi” had been freed.
Italian ex-hostages Father Pierluigi Maccalli, left, and Nicola Chiacchio, right, arrive at the presidential palace after being released and flown to the capital Bamako, Mali – Mali Presidency
Mrs Petronin thanked the Malian and French governments for their help in securing the release.
“For Mali, I will pray and implore the blessing and the mercy of Allah, because I am a Muslim,” she said.
Mrs Petronin appeared in good spirits following her release, despite concerns about her health after a 2018 hostage video showed her looking emaciated.
The footage triggered alarm among her family members, who pressured Mr Macron to negotiate with her captors.
Speaking to media, she said: “I was absolutely sure that I would come back and wouldn’t die in the meantime.”
“You know, all of us for as long as we’re on this Earth, have or will have to to go through ordeals. If you accept what is happening to you, things won’t go too badly. If you resist, you will get hit. I plumped for acceptance.”
Mr Macron had repeatedly insisted his services were working “tirelessly” for Mrs Petronin’s release.
“To her family, to her loved ones, I send a message of sympathy,” Mr Macron tweeted, adding: “The fight against terrorism in the Sahel continues”.
The French ex-hostage Sophie Petronin and her son Sebastien Chadaud-Petronin during a press point at the Residence de France in Bamako, Mali – Shutterstock
Mali’s former colonial power France has 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel as part of its anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane.
One of the hostage negotiators, who requested anonymity, told AFP that the talks remained difficult to the end.
Mr Cisse told reporters that he had been informed of his imminent freedom on Monday. What happened between then and Thursday is unclear.
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 Mr Cisse was one of the factors that fuelled popular protests leading to the ouster of Mr Keita over his perceived inability to crush the Islamist insurgency.
The intermediary involved in the negotiations told AFP on Thursday that releasing the prisoners was necessary.
“Yes, terrorists were released,” he said. “We had to obtain the release,” he added.
Five other foreign hostages are believed to be held by JNIM, including Australian doctor Ken Elliot, Colombian nun Gloria Ceilia Narvaez Argoti, South African Christo Bothma and Romanian Julian Ghergut.