Jihadists in Mali have freed a prominent opposition leader who was kidnapped earlier this year and a French aid worker held captive for almost four years, in a major exchange of prisoners with the country’s new transition government. Soumaïla Cissé, a 70-year-old former presidential candidate, was kidnapped in March while campaigning in his home town in the restive north of the country. Sophie Pétronin, thought to be the only French citizen held hostage in the world, ran a Swiss charity for malnourished children and orphans before she was abducted in the northern city of Gao on Christmas Eve in 2016. The jihadist group Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), an affiliate of al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the kidnappings – the most high-profile in a wave of abductions – as numerous militant groups have waged a bloody insurgency that has devastated the region and fuelled political upheaval in Mali. Following their release, Cissé and Pétronin were on a flight to the capital, Bamako, on Tuesday, local media and the Associated Press reported. Hopes of a deal had been building in recent days, amid reports that nearly 200 detained jihadists would be freed by security forces. Several planes carrying jihadist prisoners reportedly flew to the north-eastern town of Tessalit on Sunday.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN