Islamists free four hostages after Mali gets new leadership

ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST (BLOOMBERG) – Malian politician Soumaila Cisse, who led the main opposition party in 2018 presidential elections, arrived in the capital after being freed by Islamist militants following talks with the country’s new leadership.

The 70-year-old arrived in Bamako on Friday (Oct 9) together with French aid worker Sophie Petronin, who was held captive for nearly four years, as well as two Italian citizens. The four were flown from the northern town of Tessalit near the Algerian border after the prime minister’s office announced their release on Thursday.

Civil-society groups earlier this year criticised the government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita for not doing enough to obtain the release of Mr Cisse, whose vehicle was ambushed near the desert city of Timbuktu in March while campaigning for legislative elections. In August, Keita was deposed by the army, and an interim government headed by retired military officer Bah N’Daw was named the following month.

Dressed in traditional Malian attire, Mr Cisse told state broadcaster ORTM that things moved quickly after Mr N’Daw was sworn in on Sept 25.

“On Sept 26 my captors asked me to do a proof-of-life video,” he said. “After that, the president acted swiftly.”

The four were held by JNIM, an al Qaeda-linked faction operating in the Sahel region south of the Sahara. Both Mr Cisse and Ms Petronin, who was the last French hostage in the area, said they had been treated well. One of the Italians was kidnapped in neighboring Niger two years ago and moved to the Malian desert by his captors.

“I turned the detention into a spiritual retreat, so to say,” Ms Petronin told reporters upon her arrival in Bamako before flying to France. “I didn’t resist. It was easier that way.”

Jihadist groups with links to al-Qaeda and Islamic State have targeted mainly westerners for abductions for years and are believed to have financed many of their operations with ransom. About 200 militants were freed earlier this week in exchange for the hostages, a former government spokesman said by phone.

Four foreign citizens are still being detained by JNIM, including a Colombian nun and a Swiss missionary.

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