Mali has released more than 100 alleged or convicted fighters in an attempt to secure the release of a kidnapped prominent politician and French charity worker, according to media reports.
The reports on Monday came weeks after a new transitional government headed by former Defence Minister Bah Ndaw was sworn in following an August military coup that overthrew embattled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
“As part of the negotiations to obtain the release of Soumaila Cisse and Sophie Petronin, more than 100 jihadist prisoners were released this weekend,” one of the negotiating team’s members was quoted as saying by AFP news agency, referring to the politician and aid worker.
Cisse, a three-times presidential candidate, was abducted in March as he campaigned in his home region of Niafounke before parliamentary polls. Petronin, who ran a charity for malnourished and orphaned children, was seized in 2016 in the northern city of Gao.
An official with at the country’s security directorate confirmed the information, telling AFP the prisoners were transported by air to the regions of Niono and Tessalit in central and Northern Mali, respectively.
A legislator in Tessalit speaking on the condition of anonymity told AFP that “large numbers of jihadist prisoners” had arrived in his region on Sunday.
A separate report by Reuters news agency, citing two security sources and a diplomatic source, said Mali would release scores of suspected fighters in a prisoner exchange for Cisse and Petronin. It said representatives for the hostages could not be reached to confirm if they had been freed.
Petronin’s son, Sebastien Chadaud-Petronin, cautiously welcomed the news about the release. “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 was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.
“It is too early to rejoice because we have lived through moments like this before.”
Mali has been plagued by an eight-year conflict that began as a separatist movement in the north but soon devolved into a multitude of armed groups jockeying for control in the country’s central region.
The insecurity has spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, with groups exploiting the poverty of marginalised communities and inflaming tensions between ethnic groups.
Several missions, including France’s 5,000-strong Operation Barkhane and UN peacekeeping force, have failed to help authorities to regain their foothold in the restive region.