A 75-year-old French aid worker held hostage for four years by Islamic extremists in Mali has arrived in France, saying she wants to return to her aid work with malnourished children despite the ordeal.
Relatives greeted Sophie Petronin as she descended from a plane at the Villacoublay military airport south-west of Paris, where she was met by the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
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.
Petronin was released with three other hostages from Mali and Italy this week.
Petronin said she had been treated relatively well during captivity. Her account contrasted with that of fellow hostage Soumaïla Cissé, a prominent Malian politician who recounted months of arduous conditions before a precarious trip to their extraction point.
“I hung on – I prayed a lot because I had a lot of time,” Petronin told reporters at the French embassy in Bamako. “I transformed detention … into a spiritual retreat, if one can say that.”
Petronin was released alongside Cissé and Italian hostages the Rev Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio. There was no immediate information about the five other foreign hostages the Islamic militants from JNIM are believed to still hold.
Freedom for the four came days after the Malian government released nearly 200 militants and sent them by plane to the north of the country, fuelling speculation of an imminent prisoner exchange that some fear could further destabilise the country.
It was not immediately known whether a ransom was paid, though extremist groups have long funded their operations with such payments from European governments.
Cissé, 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 on Thursday that he had made a proof of life video on 26 September, 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,” Cissé told ORTM.
Maccalli, a Roman Catholic missionary priest from the African Missionary Society, 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”.
Among those missing is the Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narváez 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,” the bishop of Crema, Daniele Gianotti, said.
Looking energetic and determined despite her ordeal, Petronin told French broadcasters she wanted to go back to the northern Malian town of Gao to see the children she was helping before she was kidnapped.
“I made a commitment to the children. For four years I haven’t seen how the programmes are working,” she said, referring to her work with orphaned and malnourished children. “I will go to France, to Switzerland, and then I will come back to see what’s happening here.”
During her captivity, Petronin said she was allowed to listen to the radio, and her guards shared messages and videos with her, including one from her son.
Petronin’s son, Sebastien Chadaud, told French reporters “it was a little boy who found his mum again, and a mum who was comforting her little boy”. He added: “She’s like a block of granite, my mum.”
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 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.”