Families await freed hostages' return in Mali's capital

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FILE - This Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018 file photo released by the Union for the Republic and Democracy party shows then opposition presidential candidate Soumaila Cisse casting his ballot during the presidential second round election in Niafunke, Mali. Islamic extremists have freed prominent Malian politician Soumaila Cisse after holding him hostage for more than six months along with a French aid worker who was kidnapped back in 2016, an official said Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. (Boubacar Sada Sissoko/Union for the Republic and Democracy via AP, File)

BAMAKO – Relatives and supporters on Wednesday anxiously awaited the return of a prominent Malian politician and a French aid worker released by Islamic extremists, after families were notified of their release.

Family members of Soumaila Cisse and Sophie Petronin still were awaiting details of a reunion in the capital, Bamako, nearly 24 hours after first hearing word of their freedom. The reason for the delay was not immediately known, though French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal told reporters it was an “extremely sensitive” situation.

Petronin’s nephew told France’s BFM-TV he had received no new information since Tuesday evening but remained upbeat: “We’re not worried, we’re calm. The latest news was that the embassy was preparing her arrival, but we don’t know the timing.”

Cisse was seized earlier this year, and Petronin in 2016.

News of their release came just days after the Malian government freed nearly 200 jailed jihadists and flew them to the northern town of Tessalit, fueling speculation of a prisoner exchange.

Even as relatives and supporters cheered news of their release, concerns began mounting about the long-term impact of such a deal.

Laith Alkhouri, an intelligence specialist who researches extremism in West Africa, said the reported prisoner exchange could prove costly in Mali, where jihadists already launch frequent attacks on soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers.

“The likelihood is that these very jihadists will ultimately engage in militant activities,” Alkhouri said. “It will look good for the hostages to be released, but in the end the release of dozens and dozens of jihadists back into the battleground will negatively impact the security structure.”

There was no immediate confirmation on whether a ransom was paid. Extremist groups in the Sahel have long funded their organizations through kidnappings. A total of nine Western hostages seized from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso are believed to remain in the hands of various jihadist groups.

The al-Qaida-linked JNIM group, believed to have held Petronin and Cisse, is led by Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg rebel leader once considered a key mediator in the negotiations to free European hostages held for ransom.

JNIM was officially formed in 2017 when four extremist groups joined forces: al-Qaida’s North Africa branch, Al Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine and the Macina Liberation Front.

JNIM-linked militants are believed to be holding at least seven of the remaining foreign hostages: Italians Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Ciacco, Australian doctor Ken Elliott, Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, South African national Christo Bothma, Swiss national Beatrice Stockly and Romanian citizen Julian Ghergut.

The other two, American Jeffery Woodke and German Jorg Lange, are believed to be held by extremists linked to the rival Islamic State group.

Petronin was seized in December 2016. She appeared 18 months later in a video released on Telegram by JNIM alongside the Colombian nun.

In March, extremists ambushed Cisse's vehicle while he and his entourage were campaigning in northern Mali. The three-time presidential candidate was later re-elected to his parliament seat while in captivity.

The only proof that he was still alive was a handwritten letter delivered in August. Negotiations for his release had appeared to stall after a military coup overthrew democratically elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who beat Cisse in the 2013 and 2018 elections.

While a transitional civilian government has been chosen, new elections are being organized with a 2022 deadline, providing a possible new political avenue for Cisse.

“We are here today to wait for our president (Cisse), the hope of the new Mali, Soumaila Cisse," said Ousmane Doumbia in Bamako. "All us here, we want Soumaila Cisse to come. We are sure he is alive.”


Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Sam Mednick in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.