75-year-old hostage freed in Mali arrives home in France to hugs

Sophie Petronin is seen at the presidential palace in Mali
Sophie Petronin is seen at the presidential palace in Mali
12:28pm, Fri 09 Oct 2020
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A 75-year-old French aid worker held hostage for four years by Islamic extremists in Mali has arrived home – and said she wants to return to her aid work with malnourished children despite the ordeal.

Relatives enveloped Sophie Petronin in a huge embrace after she descended from the plane at Villacoublay military airport, south west of Paris, where she was greeted by President Emmanuel Macron.

He expressed joy and relief at her release, thanked Malian authorities and promised that the French military would continue its fight against terrorism in West Africa.

Ms Petronin was released with three other hostages from Mali and Italy this week. She said she had been treated relatively well during captivity.

Video posted online by militant group Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen

Her account contrasted with that of fellow ex-hostage Soumaila Cisse, a prominent Malian politician who recounted months of arduous conditions before a precarious trip to their extraction point, arriving in Mali’s capital 48 hours after being released.

“I hung on — I prayed a lot because I had a lot of time,” Ms Petronin told reporters at the French embassy in Bamako.

“I transformed detention… into a spiritual retreat, if one can say that.”

Also released were Italian hostages the Rev Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio.

There was no immediate information about five other foreign hostages the Islamic militants from JNIM are believed to still hold.

Freedom for the four came days after the Malian government released nearly 200 militants and sent them by plane to northern Mali, fuelling speculation of an imminent prisoner exchange that some fear could further destabilise the country.

It was not immediately known whether a ransom was paid, although extremist groups have long funded their operations with such payments from European governments.

Soumaila Cisse

Mr Cisse, who had been kidnapped earlier this year while campaigning for re-election as a legislator, told Mali’s state broadcaster ORTM that after months of captivity things began to move quickly at end of September.

He said late on Thursday that he had made a proof of life video on September 26, and earlier this week he was freed, but security conditions prevented them from reaching the northern town of Tessalit for two more days.

“I spent six months in… very difficult living conditions, in almost permanent isolation, but I must confess that I was not subjected to any violence, neither physical nor verbal,” Mr Cisse told ORTM.

Mr Maccalli, a Roman Catholic missionary priest from the African Missionary Society, was kidnapped from neighbouring Niger in 2018.

Father Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio

In a tweet, the Italian bishops conference expressed “gratitude to those who worked for liberation as we continue to pray for those who are missing”.

In Mr Maccalli’s birthplace of Crema, east of Milan, bells tolled in the cathedral to welcome the news of his liberation.

“I hope that the release of Fr Gigi is a promising sign of hope for all the others who are prisoners for their faith and their struggle for truth, justice and reconciliation; and may it be a seed of peace and trust for the Niger he loves so much,” Crema Bishop Daniele Gianotti said.

Looking energetic and determined despite her ordeal, Ms Petronin told French broadcasters she wants to go back to the northern Malian town of Gao to see the children she was helping before she was kidnapped.

“I made a commitment to the children. For four years I haven’t seen how the programmes are working,” she said, referring to her work with orphaned and malnourished children.

“I will go to France to Switzerland, and then I will come back to see what’s happening here.”

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