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 back in 2016, a Mali official said Tuesday.
The 70-year-old Cisse, who was abducted while campaigning ahead of legislative elections, has boarded a plane in northern Mali along with Sophie Petronin. The flight from Kidal region was headed to Gao and then on the capital of Bamako, the official said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
The government of Mali, which has seen political upheaval since an Aug. 18 military coup, freed about 180 Islamic militants over the weekend and put them on a plane to the north. That fueled speculation that a prisoner exchange was imminent.
Cisse, a three-time presidential candidate, was traveling with his entourage while campaigning for re-election as member of parliament at the time of the attack, which killed his bodyguard. Witnesses said Cisse was injured by shattered glass from his vehicle but little else is known about his conditions in captivity.
The only proof Cisse was still alive after his March abduction had been a handwritten letter delivered in August.
The re-emergence of Cisse could cast further uncertainty on the political scene in Mali. He lost the 2013 and 2018 races to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was overthrown by the military junta in August after weeks of demonstrations organized by an opposition coalition.
While the transitional civilian government already has been chosen, new elections are being organized with a 2022 deadline, providing a new avenue for the longtime presidential hopeful.