French and Malian security forces have teamed up with local religious leaders in the northern Malian city of Gao to search for a popular 67-year-old French aid worker who was abducted by armed men on Saturday.
The abduction of Sophie Pétronin, a nutritionist who looks after malnourished children, was confirmed on Sunday by France’s foreign ministry, which added that French and Malian authorities were working together “to find and free our compatriot as quickly as possible”.
Nicknamed “Maman Sophie” (Mother Sophie), the Frenchwoman is an institution in the northern Malian city. She has lived there since the early 2000s, working with local NGO Aide à Gao (Aid for Gao). She speaks the local language and is very much a part of the social fabric.
“Everyone here knows the nutritionist who drives around town in her little red car, handing out food and medicine to poor children,” said Serge Daniel, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Mali. “She is very popular because of the work she does helping deprived children and orphans.”
Daniel said security forces were combing the streets of Gao looking for clues as to whether the grey pick-up truck Pétronin was bundled into had actually left the city.
He said local religious leaders were leading searches in areas around Gao, while French troops and aircraft deployed in anti-terrorist operations had also joined in the search effort.
When contacted, the aid worker’s husband Jean-Pierre Pétronin said he had no information regarding the search operation or the circumstances of her abduction.
“It was only through the media that I found out Paris prosecutors had opened an investigation into her kidnapping,” he said.
All he got from French authorities was a message saying that no efforts were being spared to locate his wife, he added.
Jihadists still on the loose
Pétronin, who had escaped a kidnapping attempt by Islamist militants in Gao in 2012, is the latest French aid worker to fall prey to kidnappers in the Sahel.
From 2010 to 2013, 13 French citizens were kidnapped or killed in the region, mostly by groups linked to al Qaeda’s local affiliate AQMI.
While those behind the kidnappings have often claimed to be holding their victims for political reasons, they have later — behind the scenes — demanded ransom in exchange for their release.
Jihadist groups overran northern Mali, including Gao, in a swift offensive in 2012, before they were driven out of key towns by a French-led military intervention the following year.
Thousands of French soldiers are still deployed across the Sahel region just south of the Sahara as part of Operation Barkhane, which was launched in 2014. The troops have a base in Gao.
Their mission is to target jihadist groups that are still active in the area.
Despite sustained efforts, it has proven extremely difficult to bring the vast desert terrain of northern Mali under control, with a motley array of jihadists, rebels and criminals still on the loose.
Barely a week goes by without attacks on security forces despite a peace pact signed last year following lengthy negotiations between the government, groups backing it and ethnic Tuareg rebels.