Abducted Malian politician Soumaila Cissé freed after govt releases 100 prisoners

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In this September 15, 2018 photo, Malian opposition leader Soumaila Cissé greets supporters as he joins them in a march in Bamako.

In this September 15, 2018 photo, Malian opposition leader Soumaila Cissé greets supporters as he joins them in a march in Bamako. © Michele Cattani, AFPThe Malian presidency Thursday confirmed that prominent Malian politician Soumaila Cissé, who was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in March, has been released. “The presidency of the Republic confirms the liberation of Mr. Soumaïla Cissé and Ms. Sophie Pétronin. The former hostages are en route for Bamako,” the Malian presidency wrote on Twitter.French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed news of Cissé’s release in a statement on Thursday in which he also expressed “immense relief” for the release of Sophie Pétronin, a French aid worker who was kidnapped in Mali in December 2016.

“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”.

Mali had freed over 100 alleged or convicted jihadists over the weekend as part of negotiations to secure the release of Cissé and Pétronin.

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.

Former opposition leader

Cissé is a former opposition leader, finance minister and three-time presidential candidate in Mali. He was seized on March 25 of this year while campaigning in his home region of Niafounké just days ahead of long-delayed legislative elections.

The following morning, URD spokesman Demba Traore told reporters that Cissé was travelling with a group of 12 people on two jeeps when unidentified gunmen took them.

The circumstances of his disappearance remain unclear.

Five people were freed on Thursday morning, Traore said, adding that two from the freed group were wounded. One later died.

“During the kidnap, there was shooting,” he said, explaining that Cissé’s bodyguard had been hit.

Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists were active in the area where Cissé and his team disappeared.

“All the arrangements are being made to find the missing people and return them to their families,” Mali’s government said in a statement, referring to the disappearance as a kidnapping.

Olivier Salgado, the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, said the United Nations had deployed a helicopter to search for the missing politician and his associates.

The European Union’s ambassador to Mali, Bart Ouvry, tweeted that Cissé’s disappearance was worrying.

Rejects presidential runoff vote

Cissé in August 2018 rejected the announcement that now-ousted president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had won a presidential run-off vote, saying he would file a fraud complaint with Mali’s Constitutional Court.

Cissé held a news conference to declare that according to results from his party, he had won the runoff with 51.75 percent of the vote to Keita’s 48.25 percent.

“I reject the results proclaimed by the Ministry of Territorial Administration that do not reflect the vote of Malians,” Cissé said.

The ministry had said that Keita won a second five-year term, capturing more than 67 percent of the vote to Cissé’s 32 percent.

European Union observers said there were irregularities during the vote but did not say there was fraud.

After the ministry’s declaration, Keita received congratulations from French President Emmanuel Macron, whose military has been engaged in Mali in the fight against extremism.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also called the incumbent to congratulate him. The UN has over 10,000 peacekeepers in Mali.

Eight-year-old insurgency

In 2012, Mali’s north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda who exploited an ethnic Tuareg-led rebel uprising, though the Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation 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.

Supported by France and UN peacekeepers, Mali is still struggling with its eight-year-old Islamist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.

A military junta overthrew former president Keita in August, before taking over leadership of the West African nation.

AFP and AP

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