BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Islamic extremists have freed prominent Malian politician Soumaila Cisse after holding him hostage for more than six months, as well as a French aid worker who was kidnapped in 2016, an official with Cisse's political party said Tuesday, citing information given to Cisse's relatives by negotiators.
Cisse was reported freed in Tessalit along with Sophie Petronin, the official said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists. A flight was expected to bring them to the capital, Bamako, though it had not yet departed Tuesday evening. The reason for the delay was not immediately clear.
There was no immediate comment from the French or Malian governments, though relatives of both the hostages arrived in Bamako earlier Tuesday by plane from Paris.
Speculation about a prisoner exchange had heightened in recent days after the government freed about 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 the Colombian nun also shown as a hostage in the 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 is known about his conditions in captivity.
The only proof that Cisse was still alive was a handwritten letter delivered in August.
His re-emergence is likely to cast further uncertainty on the political scene in Mali. He lost the 2013 and 2018 elections to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was overthrown as president by the military junta in August after weeks of demonstrations organized by an opposition coalition.
While a transitional civilian government has been chosen, new elections are being organized with a 2022 deadline, providing a possible new 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. French media report that the French foreign ministry informed her family that authorities had received a “reliable proof of life” in March this year. No details have been disclosed.
Earlier Tuesday, her nephew Lionel Granouillac told French radio RTL that Petronin’s son had taken a flight to Bamako on Tuesday morning.
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.