France denies any role in Mali hostage talks after release of Sophie Petronin

Defence minister Florence Parly claims Malians led negotiations with extremists

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, right, welcome Sophie Petronin, center, a French aid worker held hostages for four years by Islamic extremists in Mali, upon her arrival at the Villacoublay military airport near Paris, Friday Oct. 9, 2020. Sophie Petronin was released with three other hostages from Mali and Italy this week. Before leaving Mali's capital, she said she was doing well and wanted to return to Mali to resume her humanitarian work with malnourished children and orphans.(Gonzalo Fuentes, Pool Photo via AP)

France denied any involvement in negotiations to obtain the release of four hostages in Mali, including French citizen Sophie Petronin.

The country’s defence minister Florence Parly said on Monday that Malian authorities had led the talks with extremists that also led to the release of Soumaila Cisse, a local politician.

“Negotiations for his release were opened several months ago by the Malian authorities at the time and the new Malian authorities have marked their determination to make them succeed,” she said.

The release of the hostages held in Mali, including Ms Petronin, who was kidnapped in Gao in 2016, has caused some controversy because of the simultaneous release of militant Islamists held by the government.

“The decision to release extremists in particular belongs to the Malian authorities alone, who deemed it essential to obtain the release of Soumaila Cisse,” Ms Parly said.

TOPSHOT - This video frame grab from an AFP video from October 8, 2020, shows French ex-hostage Sophie Petronin (R), who was released and flew to Bamako, hugging her son Sebastien Petronin (L) after she was reunited with him. An elderly French aid worker and a top Malian politician landed in the capital Bamako to an emotional reunion with their loved ones after being released from captivity by presumed jihadists. Mali announced the release of Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, 75, and Malian politician Soumaila Cisse on October 8, 2020, alongside two Italian nationals. / AFP / AFPTV / -

The French defence minister said that her country would continue its operations against extremists operating in and around Mali. France has 5,100 troops stationed in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane.

"Our determination is intact to continue this fight against extremism and terrorism in the region," Ms Parly said. “There is no ambiguity on [the French] side and our Malian and Sahelian partners know it."

Ms Petronin, 75, was released from captivity in the Mali desert last week and arrived home in France on Friday.

She was greeted as she touched down in her home country by her family and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Ms Petronin was one of four hostages being held by militants. She was kidnapped in northern Mali in 2016 while running a charity for malnourished and orphaned children.

France, the former colonial power in Mali, has been heavily involved in the country since its 2013 intervention against an insurgency in the north.

The 2012 Tuareg  uprising, which sparked a military coup in Bamako, was hijacked by Al Qaeda-linked extremists, creating a proto-state centred in Timbuktu.

Although a French-led operation eventually regained control of Timbuktu, instability spread to the Sahel nations of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

Dozens of French troops have been killed in clashes with extremist groups that have ties to ISIS and Al Qaeda.