French, Italian captives freed with top politician in Mali
Mali announced Thursday the release of an elderly French aid worker, two Italian captives and a top Malian politician, all believed to have been held by jihadists.
French President Emmanuel Macron immediately voiced "immense relief" at the release of the worker, the last French hostage in the world, and expressed France's continued support for Mali in its fight against an Islamist insurgency.
Mali's presidency said in a tweet on Thursday that Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, 75, and Soumaila Cisse, 70, were on their way to the capital Bamako.
The announcement has come after several days of uncertainty about the release of the pair, who were believed to have been held by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants.
Speculation about their release began to circulate in the conflict-ridden Sahel state over the weekend, when the government released over 100 suspected and convicted jihadists.
In an unexpected development, the prime minister's office also announced that two Italian nationals named Nicola Chiacchio and Pier Luigi Maccalli had been freed.
Petronin was abducted by gunmen on December 24, 2016, in the northern city of Gao, where she worked for a children's charity.
She was the last French national held hostage in the world.
Cisse, a 70-year-old former opposition leader and three-time presidential candidate, was kidnapped on March 25 while campaigning in his home region of Niafounke, in central Mali, ahead of parliamentary elections.
Mali's government on Thursday gave no indication of the circumstances of the hostages' release, nor did it provide information on the health of either Petronin or Cisse.
Days of suspense
An airport official in Tessalit, in northern Mali, confirmed to AFP that the pair were in a plane en route to Bamako.
He added that the pair said that they were happy, before boarding the aircraft.
One of the intermediaries who was involved in the release negotiations, who also requested anonymity, said the process "was not easy".
Mali released over 100 jihadist prisoners to the volatile centre of the country over the weekend, and in the northern town of Tessalit, a security official told AFP this week.
The rare mass release sparked immediate speculation on social media that the government was conducting a prisoner swap for Petronin and Cisse.
Both the Malian and French governments declined to comment on the affair over the following days, despite intense media interest.
French officials, in particular, cited the need to maintain discretion.
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 which led to the ouster of Keita over his perceived inability to tackle jihadists and Islamist insurgency.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed in the conflict, which has also often taken on an ethnic dimension.
The intermediary involved in the negotiations told AFP on Thursday that releasing the jihadists was necessary.
"Yes, terrorists were released," he said. "We had to obtain the release," he added.
Several other hostages remain detained by militant groups in the Sahel.