DAKAR — Four hostages held by armed insurgents in Mali were freed on Thursday, days after the country’s newly-formed government released around 200 prisoners, including some suspected of being jihadists.
The four hostages released included Soumaïla Cissé, a prominent Malian politician, Sophie Pétronin, a French aid worker who had been held for almost four years, and two Italians: Pierluigi Maccalli, a priest abducted in neighboring Niger in 2018, and Nicola Chiacchio, who was kidnapped last year during a solo bicycle trip.
The government, which took power in September following a military coup, announced the releases Thursday evening. It said they had been secured thanks to the efforts of the country’s intelligence services, the armed forces, Mali’s partners and a special crisis unit led by a former prime minister, but it did not provide details of the conditions under which the hostages were released.
The government’s release of prisoners last weekend had led to speculation in Mali that a deal to free the hostages had been struck.
The freeing of the hostages was greeted with joy in Mali. Mr. Cissé, a 70-year-old former opposition leader who ran for president three times, had been kidnapped by armed men in March as he was campaigning for legislative elections.
The releases were also welcomed in France, where Ms. Pétronin’s case has been closely followed.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said in a statement that he was “immensely relieved” to learn that Ms. Pétronin, 75, had been freed after the Malian authorities announced that the hostages were en route to the country’s capital, Bamako.
“The president of the Republic especially thanks the Malian authorities for this release,” a statement issued by the French presidency said. “He assures them of France’s entire will to support Mali in the fight it is waging with perseverance against terrorism.”
The French authorities said they were unaware of whether a ransom had been paid for the hostages, and gave few other details about the operation.
“It is the Malian authorities who have entirely handled this situation and this liberation,” Gabriel Attal, the French government’s spokesman, told the broadcaster France 2. “I have no information regarding compensation that would have been provided for this release.”
Over 5,000 French soldiers are deployed in the Sahel region to fight Islamist insurgent groups. Last year, two French soldiers were killed in a raid in Burkina Faso that freed four hostages, two of them French.
In Italy, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio welcomed the “good news” of the release. “Father Pier Luigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio are finally free and well,” Mr. Di Maio said in a tweet.
The Malian authorities said the four hostages had been held by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, a coalition of Al-Qaeda-aligned groups in Mali.
Mr. Cissé received a hero’s welcome at home in Badalabougou, a Bamako neighborhood, where he stood out of the sunroof of a car, waving at a crowd of supporters blowing vuvuzelas and waving cellphones.
“I spent six months under conditions that, as you know very well, were extremely difficult, in almost total isolation,” Mr. Cissé told Malian television. “But I must admit that I never experienced any violence, physical or verbal.”
Mr. Cissé’s release had been a key demand of protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta that escalated over the summer, before he was overthrown in the military coup.
Ms. Pétronin, who ran a charity for malnourished children in Mali, narrowly escaped a first kidnapping in the eastern city of Gao in 2012 and fled the country, but returned soon after. She was then kidnapped in Gao on Dec. 24, 2016, and had been held ever since.
Ms. Pétronin returned to France on Friday and was welcomed by Mr. Macron.
“Deep down, I was certain that I would come back,” Ms. Pétronin told the French radio station RFI after she landed in Bamako on Thursday and was greeted with a hug by her son, Sébastien Chadaud-Pétronin. “I never gave up,” she said.
Ms. Pétronin said that after spending some time in France, she would go back to Mali at some point. “I’m going to come back to see what’s going on here,” she said, looking frail but in good spirits.
Standing next to her, her son sounded more cautious. “We have to be reasonable,” Mr. Chadaud-Pétronin said. “You won’t go wherever you want to.”
Ruth Maclean reported from Dakar and Elian Peltier from London. Constant Méheut contributed reporting from Paris and Cheick Amadou Diouara from Bamako, Mali.