French ex-hostage returns to Mali in 'irresponsible' move
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", a charge she rejected.
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 Malian opposition figure Soumaila Cisse and two other hostages, 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 at the time, became national news, with President Emmanuel Macron himself welcoming her home as she touched down in France.
But she has since willingly returned to Mali, which the French government confirmed, while condemning the decision.
"We deplore Sophie Petronin's return to Mali," government spokesman Gabriel Attal said, calling 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".
But Petronin herself, reached by AFP by phone on Wednesday, said she rejected the criticism.
"Why irresponsible? This is my home," she said.
French media reported that Petronin has been living back in Mali for about seven months, having entered the country illegally after her request for a visa was rejected.
"Yes I've been in Mali for a while now," Petronin told AFP. "But I'm not worried and nobody is bothering me."
French radio had reported earlier that 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, telling police to look for her "very actively".
But Petronin herself appeared mystified by the order. "I don't know whether they are looking for me, or why," Petronin told AFP.
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 Sikasso area, near the Burkina Faso border, where she was believed to be.
The authorities 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.
Since Petronin's release another French national, journalist Olivier Dubois, has gone missing in Mali.
In a video released in May, Dubois said he was abducted on April 8, also in Gao, by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), the biggest jihadist alliance in the Sahel.