Mali releases 180 militants in likely prisoner exchange

The militants who abducted politician Cisse are reportedly seeking a prisoner exchange with government

Malian authorities have released 180 religious extremists from a prison in the capital and flown them to the country’s north, an official confirmed late on Sunday, fuelling speculation that a prominent opposition politician held by militants could soon be freed after more than six months in captivity.

The militants who abducted Soumaila Cisse back in late March were believed to be seeking a prisoner exchange with the Malian government. About 70 men were released on Saturday and another 110 on Sunday, according to an official.

There was no immediate comment on Sunday from Mali’s new transitional government, which was put in place more than a month after the country’s democratically elected president was ousted in a military coup.

Mr Cisse, a 70-year-old who has run for Mali’s presidency three times, was campaigning ahead of legislative elections not far from Timbuktu at the time of his abduction. His bodyguard was killed in the attack, and the only proof of life has been a handwritten letter delivered in August.

Government efforts to negotiate his release were thrown into upheaval after the coup that forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita from power, though it did not appear progress was being made towards Mr Cisse’s release.

Little is known about Mr Cisse’s conditions in captivity after the initial abduction, when the assailants opened fire on his vehicle and he was injured by broken glass from the attack.

Religious militants are active throughout northern and central Mali, though typically launch attacks on the Malian military and UN peacekeepers. A 2013 French-led military operation dispersed the militants, who then regrouped and have expanded their reach in the years since.

Many fear that the political upheaval in Mali since the coup will allow them to do so again, a fear underscored by the weekend prisoner release.