BAMAKO, Mali (AFP) — Insurgency-hit Mali freed over 100 alleged or convicted jihadists over the weekend in a bid to secure the release of a top politician and French charity worker, an official in charge of the negotiations told AFP on Monday.
The rare mass release of prisoners, confirmed by a member of the security services, comes as an eight-year Islamist insurgency, that has claimed thousands of lives, continues to threaten the fragile West African country.
Soumaila Cisse, a 70-year-old former opposition leader and three-time presidential candidate, was abducted on March 25 while campaigning in his home region of Niafounke ahead of legislative elections.
Sophie Petronin, a French charity worker who is now 75, was abducted by gunmen on December 24, 2016, in the northern city of Gao. She is the last French national held hostage in the world.
The last video in which Petronin appeared was received in June 2018. She seemed tired and emaciated, and appealed to French President Emmanuel Macron for help.
In another video in November 2018, in which she did not appear, her kidnappers said her health had deteriorated.
The jihadist prisoners were released in the central region of Niono and the northern region of Tessalit after arriving by plane, the negotiations source said.
A lawmaker in Tessalit, who also requested anonymity, confirmed to AFP that "large numbers of jihadist prisoners" arrived there on Sunday.
Petronin's son Sebastien Chadaud cautiously welcomed the news.
"We have to be attentive and remain very careful because if there are any attempts (to free them) we don't want to disrupt that," he said.
"It is too early to rejoice because we have lived through moments like this before."
Malian authorities suspect an Al-Qaeda-linked group in central Mali led by militant cleric Amadou Koufa is responsible for the kidnappings.
Mali is currently led by an interim government 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 the jihadist insurgency.
Swathes of the vast and arid nation of 19 million already lie outside government control and the insurgency has inflamed ethnic tensions.
Keita officially opposed negotiations with jihadist groups but his government launched talks with some of them in February.
Covert negotiations have continued for a ceasefire and liberation of hostages, according to sources, with the military junta vowing in particular to secure Cisse's release.
Mali's former colonial ruler France has 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel region as part of its anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane.
A Canadian woman and her Italian partner kidnapped in Burkina Faso in 2018 were found in good health in the northwest of Mali in March after fleeing their captors.
by Serge DANIEL
© Agence France-Presse
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.