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Mali announces the release of two Italian hostages of jihadists

Soumaïla Cissé, leader of the Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD), casts his vote during the second round of the 2018 presidential elections at an electoral college in Niafunké (Mali).Boubacar Sada Sissoko / AP

The Presidency of Mali confirmed this Thursday the release of the French-Swiss citizen Sophie Pétronin and the Malian political leader Soumaïla Cissé, who were kidnapped by jihadist groups from the Sahel. The release of both was advanced by different sources and by their own relatives last Tuesday, but until now it had not been officially announced. In addition to them, this Thursday two other hostages have been released, in this case two Italian citizens, the tourist Nicola Chiacchio and the missionary Pier Luigi Maccalli, according to the Malian government on public television. In previous days, the authorities released some 200 suspected jihadists, indicating a possible exchange that the authorities have not confirmed.

If the effective release of Cissé and Pétronin seemed a matter of hours since the news leaked last Tuesday, the surprise has jumped with the Italians Chiacchio and Maccalli. The former was lost on February 4, 2019, when he was cycling tourism in the Douentza area, one of the most dangerous regions in Mali. The second, known as Father Maccalli, is a religious of the Society of African Missions who was abducted on September 17, 2018 in the parish of Bomoanga, in Niger.

This Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said he felt “immense relief” for the release of Pétronin, whose kidnapping has lasted almost four years. “Glad to know that he is free,” he said in a statement thanking the Malian authorities. “I guarantee you the full willingness of France to support Mali in its perseverance fight against terrorism in the Sahel,” he added. Both Pétronin and Cissé were on Tuesday night en route from the north, where they were released, to Bamako, the country’s capital.

Soumaïla Cissé, 70, is a veteran Malian politician who was Minister of the Economy between 1993 and 2002 and a candidate for the Presidency up to three times, 2002, 2013 and 2018. He was kidnapped on March 25 when he was campaigning in his Timbuktu home region for legislative elections. Although it was never claimed, everything indicates that Cissé was in the hands of the Macina Liberation Front, a jihadist group led by preacher Amadou Kouffa and linked to Al Qaeda. His kidnapping caused deep sorrow throughout Mali and contributed to the climate of unrest that ended up crystallizing in popular protests and in the coup d’état on August 18.

The French-Swiss citizen Sophie Pétronin, 75, was kidnapped on Christmas Eve 2016 in Gao, in northern Mali, by the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) led by the Tuareg fundamentalist Iyad Ag Ghali , also linked to Al Qaeda. Pétronin, who specializes in child malnutrition, has lived in this northern Malian city since 2001 where she was well known for her work with children. In 2004 he founded an association to help children and ran a reception center.

In 2012 she already suffered a kidnapping attempt in Gao from which she escaped after starring in a bizarre escape through the desert dressed as a Tuareg. However, he returned to the city after Operation Serval led by the French Army and with the participation of the Malian Armed Forces evicted the jihadists from the city in 2013. His son, Sébastien Chadaud, has been in Bamako since the past Tuesday before the first reports that pointed to a possible release of his mother

The release of these four hostages has been surrounded by enormous secrecy for the past 48 hours. Over the weekend, the Malian transitional authorities released dozens of suspected jihadists who were imprisoned in different prisons in the country, especially in Bamako, according to sources close to the negotiations. A media close to Al Qaeda picked up a JNIM statement in which the terrorist leader Iyad Ag Ghali linked the release of 203 members of the group with the release of Cissé, although the authorities have not confirmed it.

Eight Western citizens remain in the hands of jihadist groups in the Sahel, including the Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, who was kidnapped on February 7, 2017 when she was in her congregation in Karangasso, southern Mali. The nun had been in this African country for 18 years.

This liberation occurs in the same week that the Economic Commission of West African States (Cedeao) decided to lift the sanctions imposed on the country due to the military coup that overthrew President Keita on August 18 and also coincides with the announcement of the recovery of missions to support the Malian Army by the European Union.

The new authorities of the country, now chaired by retired Air Force Colonel Bah Ndaw, appointed on Monday the new civilian government that should lead Mali to democratic elections in a period of 18 months. This executive is led by the veteran diplomat and former Foreign Minister Moctar Ouané, but in it the presence of four soldiers in key positions stands out.