A French aid worker kidnapped in Mali in 2016 and one of the country’s leading opposition politicians have been released, the presidency said on Thursday.
The office of Mali’s president said on social media that Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, 75, and Soumaila Cisse, 70, who were believed to have been held by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants, were on their way to the capital Bamako.
The announcement comes after Mali freed over 100 alleged or convicted jihadists over the weekend.
The government gave no indication of the circumstances of the hostages release, however, nor did it provide information on the health of either Petronin or Cisse.
Petronin was abducted by gunmen on December 24, 2016, in the northern city of Gao. She was the last French national held hostage in the world.
Cisse, a three-time presidential candidate, was abducted on March 25 while campaigning in his home region of Niafounke in central Mali ahead of a parliamentary election.
Mali has been struggling to contain a jihadist insurgency that first emerged in 2012, and which has since claimed thousands of lives.
The son of a French aid worker taken hostage in Mali said on Wednesday he was still awaiting news about his mother after speculation intensified following the release of detained jihadists.
Hopes that 75-year-old Sophie Petronin and abducted Malian opposition leader Soumaila Cisse may soon be released surged at the weekend when security sources said Mali’s new government had freed scores of jihadists.
But Petronin’s son, Sebastien Chadaud, who flew to the Malian capital Bamako on Tuesday, said he had no information about this mother.
“Nothing yet,” he said in a brief message to AFP, adding that he did not know whether any release was underway or not.
Petronin was abducted by gunmen on December 24, 2016, in the northern city of Gao, where she worked for a children’s charity. She is 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 ahead of legislative elections.
Anger at his abduction was a factor in a groundswell of protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was finally toppled by young army officers on August 18.
The junta has installed an interim president, Bah Ndaw, but made concessions to Mali’s neighbours demanding safeguards for a return to civilian rule.
Ndaw’s government is led by a civilian, with military men in key ministerial positions. Under a “charter” endorsed by the junta, the transition period will last for a maximum of 18 months.
Petronin and Cisse are believed to be held by an armed Islamist group linked to Al-Qaeda.
One of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries Mali is in the grip of an eight-year-old jihadist insurgency that began in the north, spread to the ethnically volatile centre and advanced into Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of civilians and soldiers have been killed and hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes.
The French and Malian governments have refused to comment on any exchange.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS announced Tuesday that it was ending sanctions imposed against Mali after a military coup in August, saying it wished to back the return to civilian rule.
In a statement, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said “heads of state and government have decided to lift sanctions” after noting positive steps towards a constitutional government.
It noted the publication of a roadmap for the transition period.
The 15-nation group imposed tough sanctions against one of Africa’s poorest countries after president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was ousted following mass protests.
The coup was bloodless but triggered widespread alarm among Mali’s neighbours.
A coup in 2012 was followed by an uprising in northern Mali which morphed into a bloody Islamist insurgency, claiming thousands of lives and threatening neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
The ECOWAS sanctions, imposed on August 20, included border closures and a ban on commercial trade and financial flows but not basic necessities, drugs, equipment to fight coronavirus, fuel or electricity.
Under pressure, Mali’s junta endorsed a “charter” to restore civilian rule within 18 months and appointed a committee which chose 70-year-old retired colonel Bah Ndaw as interim president.
Despite this, ECOWAS insisted on the publication of the transition roadmap and warned it could not accept junta leader Colonel Assimi Goita, who is interim vice president, as Ndaw’s potential replacement.
The bloc has now taken into account “notable advances towards constitutional normalisation,” according to a French text of Tuesday’s statement, signed by President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana, who currently chairs ECOWAS.
It also called on “all bilateral and multilateral partners to support Mali.”
The communique also called for civilian and military officers detained during the coup to be released, and for the junta, which calls itself the National Council for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), to be dissolved.
The statement was issued a day after Ndaw appointed a government, headed by former foreign minister Moctar Ouane, in which junta members occupy key positions.
The “charter” also sets down the goals of re-establishing security across the nation, two-thirds of which are outside government control; of “restoring the state”; and of staging general elections.
Mali has freed more than 100 suspected or convicted jihadists as part of negotiations for the release of a prominent Malian politician and a kidnapped French charity worker, sources close to the talks said Monday.
“As part of the negotiations to obtain the release of Soumaila Cisse and Sophie Petronin, more than one hundred jihadist prisoners were released this weekend,” one of those in charge of the negotiations, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
An official at the security services confirmed the information.
The prisoners were released in the central region of Niono and in Tessalit in the north after arriving by plane, the official said.
A lawmaker in Tessalit, who also requested anonymity, confirmed to AFP that “large numbers of jihadist prisoners” arrived there on Sunday.
Sophie Petronin, a French charity worker, was abducted by gunmen on December 24, 2016, in the northern city of Gao.
The last video in which she appeared was received in June 2018. She appeared tired and emaciated and appealed to French President Emmanuel Macron. In another video, in November 2018, in which she did not appear, her kidnappers said her health had deteriorated.
Soumaila Cisse is a former opposition leader and three-time presidential candidate. He was seized on March 25 while campaigning in his home region of Niafounke ahead of legislative elections.
Mali, supported by France and UN peacekeepers, is struggling with an eight-year-old Islamist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.
A military junta overthrew president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August, before taking over leadership of the West African nation
Former President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday visited President Muhammadu Buhari over the crisis rocking Mali.
Jonathan’s visit comes after Mali appointed a civilian as Interim President. He will stay in office for 18 months, and lead the country back to constitutional order after the military had taken over power in the country.
That was part of irreducible demands by West African leaders before sanctions imposed on the country could be lifted.
But President Buhari indicated that Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), at the behest of their Chairman, President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana, may confer again to discuss outstanding grey areas in the Mali political situation.
Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), at the behest of their Chairman, President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana, may confer again to discuss outstanding grey areas in the Mali political situation, President Muhammadu Buhari has indicated.
The President spoke after receiving a briefing at State House, Abuja, Monday, from ECOWAS Special Envoy to Mali, former Nigerian President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan.
Mali has appointed a civilian as Interim President, who will stay in office for 18 months, and lead the country back to constitutional order after the military had taken over power in the country. That was part of irreducible demands by West African leaders before sanctions imposed on the country could be lifted.
However, according to the Special Envoy, the military leaders are yet to satisfy ECOWAS demand of a full civilian as Vice President, and what his roles would be in government.
That position is currently being held by a serving military officer, who was also one of the leaders of the take-over.
President Buhari counseled the Special Envoy to present a formal report to the new ECOWAS Chairman, President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana, “who will then write us officially, and we then determine the next steps.”
The President said with about two-thirds of Mali currently under occupation by terrorists, “the priority of the military should be to secure their country,” rather than hold on to power.
Former Malian foreign minister Moctar Ouane has been named prime minister by the country’s interim president Bah Ndaw, state television announced Sunday.
Ouane, 64, served as foreign minister between 2004 and 2011 during Amadou Toumani Toure’s presidency.
The members of the new PM’s government will be unveiled Tuesday, an officer from the military junta in power since Mali’s August 18 coup told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Mali’s neighbours in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had insisted that the junta name a civilian to the job of government chief after former colonel and defence minister Bah Ndaw was installed.
A civilian PM was the precondition for ECOWAS to lift sanctions it imposed two days after the coup removing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, which the junta claims inflicted no casualties.
Ndaw was sworn in Friday before Mali’s supreme court with junta chief Colonel Assimi Goita as his deputy, placing Goita in charge of defence and security issues.
Mali’s interim president, Bah Ndaw, chosen to head a transitional regime following last month’s coup, vowed after being sworn in on Friday to hand over power within an agreed timeframe and honour international agreements.
In a speech, Ndaw said he would strive for “a stable, calm and successful transition, in the agreed conditions and timeframe.”
According to a roadmap to civilian rule endorsed by the military junta which seized power on August 18, Ndaw will rule for a maximum of 18 months before staging elections.
“Mali has given me everything. I am happy to be its submissive slave, willing to do everything for it to return to full constitutional legality, with elected authorities, legitimative representatives,” he declared.
The 70-year-old retired colonel and former defence minister also promised to uphold Mali’s international commitments.
“The transition period which begins will not dispute any international undertaking by Mali, nor the agreements signed by the government,” Ndaw said.
He also promised to continue a “merciless war” against “terrorist forces and organised crime” and called for a moment of silence to honour fallen troops — Malians, French and UN.
Mali, supported by France and UN peacekeepers, is struggling with an eight-year-old Islamist insurgency which has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives.
Mali’s military junta announced the leaders of a new transition government in the Sahel state on Monday, which will retain strong army links despite international pressure to appoint civilians.
Junta leader Colonel Assimi Goita said in a televised statement that former defence minister Bah Ndaw would become transition president — while he himself would serve as vice president.
The announcement comes after the 15-nation West Africa bloc ECOWAS last week gave Mali’s ruling officers “days” to appoint civilian leaders, warning that it would not lift sanctions on the country otherwise.
West African leaders imposed sanctions on Mali — including a trade embargo and shuttered borders — in the wake of the August 18 military coup that ousted president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
The junta said last week that it would prefer the military to run the transition, however.
Ndaw, a 70-year-old retiree, was appointed transition president by a committee chosen by the junta, Goita said on Monday.
“Each proposal has its advantages and its disadvantages,” he said, referring to the choice between a civilian, or military president.
He added that the committee had taken “a global context” into account when picking Ndaw, in an apparent reference to pressure from ECOWAS.
– Helicopter pilot –
Ndaw is a former helicopter pilot who was once an aide-de-camp to Mali’s ex-dictator Moussa Traore, who died last week aged 83.
He later served as a defence minister under President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita — who was ousted in the military coup last month.
A veteran soldier, Ndaw also received training in the former Soviet Union as well as at Paris’s renowned Ecole de Guerre.
Monday’s announcement followed a three-day forum with political parties and civil-society representatives earlier this month, which met to outline a roadmap to restore civilian rule in Mali.
According to a charter which emerged from that forum, the transition president is meant to rule for 18 months before staging nationwide elections.
Delegates had hotly debated the military’s role in the transition government, with some arguing to hand over power to civilians in line with ECOWAS wishes.
Mali’s neighbours, who are anxious the war-torn country could spiral into chaos, have been pressuring the junta to swiftly hand over power.
Two days after the coup, ECOWAS stopped financial and commercial trade with Mali, except for basic necessities, drugs, equipment to fight coronavirus, fuel and electricity.
The sanctions could bite in the poor country already facing a severe economic downturn as well as a simmering jihadist insurgency and chronic inter-ethnic violence.
It was these state failures that provoked people into the streets earlier this year, with months of protests and unrest building up to the military arresting president Keita and seizing control.
ECOWAS has yet to react to Ndaw’s nomination as transition president, nor to Goita as vice president.
A swearing-in ceremony will take place on Friday, Goita said.