BAMAKO – Relatives of a prominent Malian politician and a French aid worker held hostage by Islamic extremists said late Tuesday that both had been freed and would soon be on their way to the capital, Bamako.
An official with Soumaila Cisse's political party told The Associated Press that the parliament member's relatives had been informed of his release along with that of aid worker Sophie Petronin. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
Petronin's nephew told France's BFM-TV the family had received the news after his aunt spent nearly four years in captivity in northern Mali.
“We can serenely tonight say she’s free even if French authorities have not confirmed it yet,” Lionel Granouillac said.
There was no independent confirmation in the remote northern town of Tessalit where the pair were reportedly freed in exchange for nearly 200 jihadists who had been in Malian government custody.
There was no immediate comment from the French or Malian governments, though relatives of both the hostages had arrived in Bamako earlier Tuesday by plane from Paris. News of Cisse's reported release led groups of his young supporters to shout “Soumaila! Soumaila!” in the streets of Bamako while other thronged the airport in anticipation of his arrival.
Speculation about a prisoner exchange had heightened in recent days after the government freed more than 180 Islamic extremists over the weekend and put them on a plane to the north.
In December 2016, militants seized Petronin from the city of Gao, where she was helping orphans as an aid worker. She appeared 18 months later in a video released on Telegram by the al-Qaida-linked group known as JNIM. There was no immediate word on whether a Colombian nun also shown as a hostage in that video was released.
Cisse, a three-time presidential candidate, was traveling with his entourage in the north in March while campaigning for re-election as a member of parliament. Extremists ambushed his vehicle, killing his bodyguard, witnesses said.
Cisse, 70, was injured by shattered glass, but little else has been known about his conditions 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 both 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.
Petronin, 75, was believed to be the last known French citizen held hostage abroad, though abductions are sometimes kept under wraps while negotiations are ongoing.
She was last seen in the video released in 2018. Earlier this year, French media reported in March that the French foreign ministry had informed her family of a “reliable proof of life” but no other details have been disclosed.
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.