After years of imprisonment, several European hostages have been released by suspected jihadists. Apparently it was part of a prisoner exchange in Mali.

Suspected jihadists have released a French woman kidnapped since 2016 and two Italians in Mali. In addition, the kidnapped opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé was released in March, the Malian presidency announced on Thursday evening. Cissé and the 75-year-old Frenchwoman Sophie Pétronin are on their way to the capital Bamako. Previously, the government had released more than 100 convicted or suspected jihadists.

Last French hostage in the world

French woman Pétronin, who provided humanitarian aid in the West African country, was kidnapped by gunmen in Gao, northern Mali, on December 24, 2016. The last video she appeared in was released in June 2018. In it she looked very exhausted and emaciated. In a video from November 2018, in which Pétronin was not seen, her captors stated that the French woman’s health had deteriorated.

After her release, French President Emmanuel Macron was “greatly relieved”. He thanked the authorities in Mali via the online service Twitter and announced that he would continue the “fight against terrorism in the Sahel zone”. Pétronin was the last French hostage in the world.

Pétronin was kidnapped during the election campaign in 2017

Together with Pétronin, the former head of the opposition in the Malian parliament, Cissé, was released. The 70-year-old was runner-up three times in Mali’s presidential elections. He was kidnapped on March 25 while campaigning for the general election in Niafounké in the northwestern region of Timbuktu. Initially, nothing was communicated about the state of health and the exact circumstances of the liberation of Cissé and Pétronin.

Little was also known about the release of Nicola Chiacchio and Pier Luigi Maccalli. Shortly after the presidency announcement about Cissé and Pétronin, the government issued a statement that the two Italians detained by Islamists were released on Tuesday. Pastor Maccalli was kidnapped in Niger in 2018. According to Italian media reports, Chiacchio is said to have been a tourist when he was kidnapped.

Release part of a prisoner exchange

The release of the foreign hostages and of Cissé by suspected Islamists seemed to be part of a prisoner exchange. More than 100 convicted or suspected jihadists were released over the weekend. Security circles identified this as part of a prisoner exchange agreement.

Islamist groups took control of northern Mali in 2012 and continued to advance. Former colonial power France intervened militarily in 2013 and pushed back the Islamists. The Bundeswehr is also deployed in Mali – as part of the UN stabilization mission Minusma and the EU training mission EUTM. Yet despite the presence of thousands of international soldiers, the political and security situation is extremely unstable.

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