BAMAKO, Mali — Islamic extremists have freed prominent Malian politician Soumaila Cisse after holding him hostage for more than six months, as well as a French aid worker who was kidnapped in 2016, a Malian official said Tuesday.
The 70-year-old Cisse boarded a plane in northern Mali along with Sophie Petronin, the official said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists. The flight departing from Tessalit was headed to Gao and then the capital, Bamako.
There was no immediate comment from the French or Malian governments.
Speculation about a prisoner exchange had heightened in recent days after the government freed about 180 Islamic extremists over the weekend and put them on a plane to the north.
Militants seized Petronin from Gao in December 2016. She appeared 18 months later in a video released on Telegram by the al-Qaida-linked group known as JNIM. There was no immediate word on whether the Colombian nun also shown as a hostage in the video was released.
Cisse, a three-time presidential candidate, was traveling with his entourage in the north in March while campaigning for re-election as a member of parliament. Extremists ambushed his vehicle, killing his bodyguard, witnesses said. Cisse was injured by shattered glass, but little else is known about his conditions in captivity.
The only proof that Cisse was still alive was a handwritten letter delivered in August.
His re-emergence is likely to cast further uncertainty on the political scene in Mali. He lost the 2013 and 2018 elections to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was overthrown as president by the military junta in August after weeks of demonstrations organized by an opposition coalition.
While a transitional civilian government has been chosen, new elections are being organized with a 2022 deadline, providing a possible new avenue for Cisse.
Petronin was believed to be the last known French citizen held hostage abroad, though abductions are sometimes kept under wraps while negotiations are ongoing.
She was last seen in the video released in 2018. French media report that the French foreign ministry informed her family that authorities had received a “reliable proof of life” in March this year. No details have been disclosed.
Earlier Tuesday, her nephew Lionel Granouillac told French radio RTL that Petronin’s son had taken a flight to Bamako on Tuesday morning.
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.