French hostage freed in Mali arrives at his home in France to hug them

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BAMAKO, Mali (AP) – A 75-year-old French aid worker held hostage for four years by Islamic extremists in Mali arrived in France on Friday – and says she wants to return to her work helping malnourished children in Africa despite the ordeal.

Relatives wrapped Sophie Petronin in a huge embrace after she stepped off the plane at Villacoublay military airport in southwest Paris, where she was greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Dressed in a white veil and trench coat, Petronin looked very emotional as she held her grandsons in her arms.

“The French and I are happy to finally see you again, dear Sophie Petronin,” Macron tweeted. ” Welcome to the house. “

Petronin met Macron for about an hour at the airport. They did not speak to the press.

Macron expressed his joy and relief at his release, thanked the Malian authorities and pledged that the French army would continue its fight against terrorism in the West African region.

Petronin was released along with three other hostages from Mali and Italy this week. Bells rang in the Italian hometown of a priest who was also released.

Petronin said she was treated relatively well during her captivity. His account contrasted with that of ex-hostage Soumaila Cissé, a prominent Malian politician who recounted months of harsh conditions before a precarious journey to their point of extraction, arriving in the capital of Mali 48 hours after his first release.

“I held on – I prayed a lot because I had a lot of time,” Petronin told reporters at the French Embassy in Bamako. “I turned detention… into a spiritual retreat, if you could put it that way.

Petronin was freed alongside Italian hostages Reverend Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio, and Cissé, a prominent Malian politician. There was no immediate information about the other five foreign hostages that Islamic militants in JNIM are believed to still be holding.

Freedom for the four came just days after the Malian government freed nearly 200 activists and airlifted them to northern Mali, fueling speculation over an impending prisoner swap which some say could destabilize more the country.

It was not immediately clear whether a ransom had been paid, although extremist groups have long funded their operations with such payments from European governments.

Cisse, who was kidnapped earlier this year while campaigning for re-election as lawmaker, told Malian national television station ORTM that after months in captivity things had started to move quickly in the end of September.

He said Thursday evening he made a proof of life video on September 26 and earlier this week he was released. However, 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 admit that I have not suffered any violence, neither physical nor verbal,” Cissé told the ORTM.

Among the Italian hostages was Maccalli, a Roman Catholic missionary priest from the African Missionary Society who was abducted in neighboring Niger in 2018.

In a tweet, the Italian Bishops’ Conference expressed “its gratitude to those who have worked for liberation as we continue to pray for those who are missing.”

Among the missing is Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, last seen in a 2018 video alongside Petronin.

In Maccalli’s hometown of Crema, a town east of Milan in northern Italy, bells were ringing in the cathedral to welcome the news of his release.

“I hope that the release of Fr. Gigi is a sign of promising hope for all the other prisoners of their faith and their struggle for truth, justice and reconciliation; and may it be a seed of peace and confidence for the Niger which it loves so much ”, declared Mgr Daniele Gianotti, Bishop of Crema.

Appearing energetic and determined despite her ordeal, Petronin told French broadcasters that she wanted to return to the town of Gao in northern Mali to see the children she was helping before being kidnapped.

“I made a commitment to the children. For four years I haven’t seen how the programs work, ”she said, referring to her work with orphaned and malnourished children. “I’ll go to France, Switzerland, and then I’ll come back to see what’s going on 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 of her son.

Petronin’s middle-aged son, Sébastien Chadaud, told French journalists that “it was a little boy who found his mother, and a mother who comforted her little boy”.

He added, “She’s like a block of granite, my mother. “

He cried as he described how he fought for his release, telling his mother, “I did my best. She comforted him by saying, “You did what you could.”

As her son kissed her head, she said she just wanted to hang out with him, “to look at him and say, ‘Forgive me, I have caused you so much pain, so much trouble, so much. working to help me out. ”

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Associated Press editors Nicole Winfield in Rome; Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.

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