A rights group in Mali says it is alarmed by the apparent deal that set free the last French hostage held by al-Qaida's North Africa branch. Four accused terrorists were released in Bamako in the days before the release of French citizen Serge Lazarevic.
On Tuesday, France declared that the country’s last remaining hostage in the hands of al-Qaida was on his way home. Serge Lazarevic spent nearly three years as a captive of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Just days before, two young Malians from the northern city of Kidal, along with a Western Sahara man and a Tunisian, were released from prison in Bamako.
The two Malians, arrested in 2011, were suspects in the kidnapping of Lazarevic. The two are close to Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group with links to AQIM.
Drissa Traore with the human rights organization AMDH (Association Malienne des Droits de l'Homme) was troubled by the apparent swap.
“The liberation is a violation of the rights of the victims but also of the principles that say the government should not interfere with the work of the judiciary,” said Traore.
The Tunisian and Western Sahara man were released from the central prison in Bamako on December 4. Two days later, the two Malian prisoners were transferred from Bamako's central prison to a location in northern Mali. In Niger, the hostage mediator, a prominent Tuareg, Mohamed Akotey, awaited Lazarevic’s release.
Traore said the four former prisoners were all guilty of war crimes.
“They are terrorists capable of abducting Westerners and holding them for ransom," he said. "They are a danger both to foreigners in Mali and Malians. It’s almost like the life of one foreigner is worth more than the life of 15.9 million Malians.”
The two Malians, Mohamed Aly Ag Wadoussène and Haïba Ag Acherif, are the main suspects for the kidnapping of Lazarevic and another French citizen, Philippe Verdon, in Hombori in northern Mali in November 2011. Verdon was found shot to death in 2013.
In June this year, Wadoussène had escaped from the central prison in Bamako, killing one prison guard.
Traore said he was happy for the release of Lazarevic but the price was Mali’s security "as the four criminals are a threat to our country and abroad."
There’s no doubt, Traore said, that the four men would now rejoin the armed groups. “This allows them to increase their strength,” he said.
The Malian Association for Human Rights is urging Mali’s government and international organizations to work towards re-arresting the four men as soon as possible.
Analysts in Mali said it was highly likely a ransom was also paid, giving AQIM or affiliated groups a sizeable sum of money, but there was no confirmation.
The presence of international troops in northern Mali has limited the area where AQIM can operate in recent years. The group is weaker now than when it took control of urban centers in the north in 2012.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has suffered losses fighting mainly French forces. A military analyst in Bamako said the group's use of improvised explosive devices - basically homemade bombs on roads - showed it was not strong enough to launch an attack and wanted to avoid direct confrontation.