French ex-hostage returns to Mali in 'irresponsible' move: Paris

·2-min read
Petronin's release last year was national news in France (AFP/GONZALO FUENTES)

A French aid worker who was kidnapped and held hostage in Mali for four years has returned to the West African country on her own initiative, the French government said Wednesday, calling her decision "irresponsible".

Sophie Petronin, 76, was taken by gunmen in December 2016 in the northern Malian city of Gao and held by what are believed to be Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants.

She was freed in October last year, along with leading Mali opposition figure Soumaila Cisse, reportedly in exchange for the release of more than 200 convicted or alleged jihadists by the Mali authorities.

The ordeal and eventual release of Petronin, who was the last remaining French hostage in the world, became national news, with President Emmanuel Macron himself welcoming her home as she touched down in France.

But media reports over recent days said she had willingly returned to Mali, which the French government confirmed, condemning the decision.

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal called Petronin's decision "a form of irresponsibility".

Attal told reporters that the former aid worker was compromising her own security as well as that of France's military personnel.

"When our citizens are taken hostage abroad, our soldiers go to save them, risking their lives," Attal said.

"Some of our soldiers have died in operations to save hostages who were taken in foreign countries," he said, calling for "respect for our soldiers".

Attal declined to confirm media reports that said Petronin has been living back in Mali for about seven months, having entered the country illegally after her request for a visa was rejected.

French radio said she had decided to go back to Mali after being unable to adapt to life in the Swiss village where she had settled after her release.

The authorities in Mali last week issued a search warrant for her, it said.

A Mali police official, who declined to be identified, told AFP that there were fears for her safety because of the presence of armed groups in the area where she was believed to be.

The authorities, meanwhile, declined to say whether Petronin, who has an adopted daughter in Mali, would be expelled once found.

Mali has been struggling to contain a jihadist insurgency that first emerged in 2012, and which has claimed thousands of lives.

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