The Malian presidency confirmed Thursday that French charity worker Sophie Pétronin, who was abducted in Mali and held hostage since December 2016, has been released.
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed news of Pétronin's release as well as that of Soumaïla Cissé – a prominent Malian politician who was abducted in Mali on March 25 – in a statement on Thursday.
"The President of the Republic has learned with immense relief of the liberation of Ms. Jeannine 'Sophie' Pétronin, a French humanitarian working who has been held hostage in Mali for nearly four years," the statement said.
Macron added that he was "particularly grateful to Malian authorities" for their role in orchestrating the pair's release, and reaffirmed France's commitment to supporting Mali in "its fight to persevere against terrorism in the Sahel".
Macron later tweeted: "To [Pétronin's] family and loved ones, I send a message of sympathy", and, after 1am French time, added that he had spoken with Pétronin by phone and would personally welcome her back to France on Friday.
Pétronin’s release came days after Mali freed more than 100 suspected or convicted jihadists as part of negotiations for the release of both her and Cissé, sources close to the talks told AFP on Monday.
Mali's government gave no indication of the circumstances of the hostages' release, however, nor did it provide information on the health of either Pétronin or Cissé.
Armed men abducted Pétronin – who ran an organisation assisting orphans in Mali – on December 24, 2016 in the northern city of Gao.
The aid worker, who has cancer and was suffering from malaria at the time of her abduction, was last seen looking tired and emaciated in a video released by her captors in June 2018 in which she addressed her son and appealed to Macron for help.
In another video in November 2018 her kidnappers said her health had further deteriorated.
Cissé is a former opposition leader and three-time presidential candidate. He was seized while campaigning in his home region of Niafounké ahead of legislative elections.
France’s foreign ministry had evidence dating from early March 2020 that Pétronin was alive, her son told France Info radio.
“The ministry has spoken of an element of proof dating from the start of March, without giving details. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing,” Sébastien Chadaud-Pétronin told the French broadcaster.
Arnaud Granouillac, a nephew of Pétronin's, had appealed to Macron in the summer of 2018 “not to let [my] aunt die over there” and to meet with the family of the “last French hostage held in the world” at the Élysée Palace.
“One cannot let someone die like that,” Arnaud Granouillac told Agence France-Presse after launching the appeal on local television.
Granouillac said Pétronin had been “held in the desert without treatment for more than 600 days”.
“Her health is deteriorating from one day to the next” as her appearance illustrated in the June 2018 video, he said.
Granouillac suggested the family made several requests to be received at the presidential palace, without success. The family had only “informal contact” with the French foreign ministry. “But it is not moving forward … We know very well that Mr. Macron does not want to negotiate but he should at least have the decency to say so to our face.”
“We will never abandon my aunt and my cousin will never abandon his mother and they need to be well aware of that,” Granouillac said.
Macron issued a statement on July 13, 2018, saying that France was working “tirelessly” to locate Pétronin.
No group initially claimed the Frenchwoman’s abduction. Then in July 2017, the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel, a group linked to al Qaeda, released a video showing six foreigners kidnapped in Mali and Burkina Faso between 2011 and 2017, with Pétronin among them.
In 2012, Mali's north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda who exploited an ethnic Tuareg-led rebel uprising, although the Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation that began in January 2013.
Since then jihadists have continued to mount numerous attacks on civilians and the army, as well as on French and United Nations forces stationed there. Although supported by French and UN forces, Mali is still struggling with an eight-year 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.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)