A 75-year-old French aid worker held hostage for four years by Islamist extremists in Mali was reunited Friday with her grandchildren in France, as relatives also welcomed home two Italians and a Malian politician freed with her this week.
They were released earlier this week, days after the Malian government freed nearly 200 Islamist militants in an apparent prisoner exchange.
But the homecoming was muted by the announcement later Friday that a Swiss woman held captive by the same extremist group had been killed. The Swiss foreign ministry didn’t name the woman or provide more details other than to say she was killed about a month ago. It said it had received the information from French authorities, who were notified by “the recently released French hostage.”
“It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of our fellow citizen,” Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis said in a statement. “I condemn this cruel act and express my deepest sympathy to the relatives.”
Earlier on Friday, the 75-year-old aid worker, Sophie Petronin, descended from a plane at the Villacoublay military airport southwest of Paris, where she was greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron. Wearing a white veil and a trench coat, Petronin held her grandsons in her arms.
“The French and I are glad to see you back at last, dear Sophie Petronin,” Macron tweeted. “Welcome home.”
Petronin met with Macron for about an hour at the airport. They did not speak to the press.
Macron expressed joy and relief at her release, thanked the Malian authorities and promised that the French military would continue its fight against terrorism in the West African region.
In an emotional reunion late Thursday in the Malian capital, Petronin’s son Sebastien Chadaud cried when describing how he fought for her release, telling his mother: “I did my best.” She comforted him, saying, “You did what you could.”
As her son kissed her head, she said she just wanted to spend time with him, “to look at him and tell him, ‘Forgive me, I caused you so much pain, so much difficulty, so much work to help me get out.”‘
Petronin was released with the two Italians and a prominent Malian politician this week.
Rev. Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio arrived at Rome’s Ciampino airport on Friday afternoon aboard an Italian government jet, welcomed by Premier Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.
Wearing face masks over their beards and clad in sweat suits, the two men greeted the officials on the tarmac and then proceeded into an airport VIP lounge.
Soumaila Cisse, a three-time presidential candidate in Mali, recounted months of arduous conditions before a precarious trip to their extraction point, arriving in Mali’s capital 48 hours after first being released in the country’s remote north.
There was no immediate information about the five other foreign hostages that the Islamic militants from Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslim (JNIM) are believed to still hold. It also was not known whether a ransom was paid, though extremist groups in that region have long funded their operations with such payments from European governments.
Cisse, who had been kidnapped earlier this year while campaigning for re-election as a legislator, told Mali’s state broadcaster ORTM that after months of captivity things began to move quickly at the end of September.
He said late Thursday that he had made a proof of life video on Sept. 26, and earlier this week he was freed. Still, security conditions prevented them from reaching the northern town of Tessalit for two more days.
“I spent six months in … very difficult living conditions, in almost permanent isolation, but I must confess that I was not subjected to any violence, neither physical nor verbal,” Cisse told ORTM.
The Italian hostages included Maccalli, a Roman Catholic missionary priest from the African Missionary Society who was kidnapped from neighbouring Niger in 2018.
In a tweet, the Italian bishops’ conference expressed “gratitude to those who worked for liberation as we continue to pray for those who are missing.”
Accogliamo con gioia la notizia della liberazione in Mali di padre Pierluigi <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Maccalli?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Maccalli</a> e Nicola Chiacchio. Ringraziamo il Signore ed esprimiamo gratitudine a coloro che hanno lavorato per la liberazione, mentre continuiamo a pregare per quanti risultano scomparsi 🙏🏻 <a href=”https://t.co/Ju8N73mweY”>pic.twitter.com/Ju8N73mweY</a>
Among those missing is Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti, last seen in a 2018 video alongside Petronin.
In Maccalli’s birthplace of Crema, a city east of Milan in northern Italy, bells tolled in the cathedral to welcome the news of his liberation.
“I hope that the release of Fr. Gigi is a promising sign of hope for all the others who are prisoners for their faith and their struggle for truth, justice and reconciliation; and may it be a seed of peace and trust for the Niger he loves so much,” Crema Bishop Daniele Gianotti said.