An alliance of Islamist militant groups with links to al-Qaeda in the West African country Mali released four hostages, including an Italian Catholic priest, who had been held captive for years, according to reports.
The Group for Support to Islam and Muslims, an alliance comprising jihadist groups aligned with al-Qaeda, released four hostages this week — Father Pierluigi Maccalli, a 59-year-old Catholic priest and member of the Society of African Missions; Nicola Chiacchio, an Italian tourist; Sophie Petronin, a 75-year-old French humanitarian worker; and Soumaila Cisse, a 70-year-old Malian politician.
The four landed in the Malian capital Bamako on a military plane, The Times (of London) reported.
Islamist militants had abducted Fr. Maccalli from his parish in southern Niger early on Sept. 18, 2018. Petronin, who was working for a children’s charity in the northern Gao city, was kidnapped in northern Mali in December 2016. According to Catholic News Service, Italian tourist Chiacchio was kidnapped in Mali on Feb. 4 last year, and Malian politician Cisse, a former opposition leader and three-time presidential candidate, was kidnapped in March.
Petronin was the last French citizen to be held hostage anywhere in the world.
It’s not known whether a ransom was paid or under what circumstances the hostages were released. However, it's suspected that the hostages' release could be part of a prisoner swap, as Mali freed more than 100 suspected militants, believed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, in the country’s troubled central region, according to BBC.
International armed forces have been helping Mali’s efforts to fight a jihadist insurgency in the north of the country since 2012.
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Catholic leaders in Italy, especially in Crema, celebrated Maccalli’s release.
“The joy of the whole SMA family is great and our gratitude to the Lord is even greater,” Father Antonio Porcellato, superior general of the Society of African Missions, was quoted as saying in a statement. “We rejoice with the Maccalli family (and) with Father Walter Maccalli,” Father Pierluigi’s brother, who's also a member of the society. "We thank in a very special way the Italian foreign office and the crisis management unit that supported the family during the last two years and worked discretely and efficiently for the liberation.”
Archbishop Protase Rugambwa, secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, called it “a sign and vibrant witness that the grace of Christ works and restores hope in situations marked by violence, conflict and pandemic.”
“The release shows us that the grace of Christ is stronger than any difficulty and that we always must trust in him,” the archbishop said.
Bishop Daniele Gianotti of Crema said, “I want to read his liberation as a sign of trust and encouragement for all those men and women who witness to the Gospel of Jesus in the most exposed and difficult situations.”
He hoped it would be “a promising sign of hope for all those others who are prisoners because of their faith and their struggle for truth, justice and reconciliation and that it would be a seed of peace and trust for Niger, which he loves so much, for the Sahel and for all of Africa.”