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South African Kidnapped in 2017 Released in Mali

FILE - This undated and unlocated handout picture released by the van Deventer family shows Gerco van Deventer.
FILE - This undated and unlocated handout picture released by the van Deventer family shows Gerco van Deventer.

A South African paramedic who had been held by jihadists in Mali for over six years has been released, security and humanitarian sources told AFP on Sunday.

Gerco van Deventer, 48, was kidnapped in Libya on November 3, 2017, on his way to a power plant construction site around 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) south of the capital Tripoli.

Three other Turkish engineers seized at the same time were freed seven months later, but van Deventer remained in captivity and was moved to Mali.

"We learned that the South African hostage was released the day before yesterday," a Malian security source told AFP.

A foreign humanitarian source said that van Deventer was released on the border between Mali and Algeria, adding that she had briefly met the freed hostage at the border.

The security source said van Deventer was currently under observation at a hospital in Algiers.

His wife, Shereen van Deventer, told AFP that she did not wish to comment immediately, saying they were "a little overwhelmed as a family" by the news and the number of calls.

The two sources confirmed information given by an influential South African charity, Gift of the Givers, which was involved in mediation efforts for his release.

The NGO said in a statement it got involved "at the request of the family" and "made contact with JNIM" — the Al-Qaeda-linked group Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, to whom van Deventer was sold in 2018.

Gift of the Givers claims that "the initial request for Gerco was $3 million, and over a period of time we negotiated the amount down to $500,000."

But it did not specify whether the money was paid and if so, by who, saying in the statement that the family could not afford the ransom.

Van Deventer, an emergency paramedic, had been working for a security company, according to his family, who had launched a fresh appeal in March for his release.

His wife told AFP in an online interview at the time that she and their three children "desperately need him home.”

There was a flurry of negotiations for his release during the first few years after his kidnapping, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on those efforts until earlier this year, she had said.

The Sahel has been ravaged by a jihadist campaign that began in northern Mali in 2012, sweeping over into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger in 2015.

Mali has been ravaged by different groups affiliated to al-Qaida and the Islamic State, as well as by self-declared self-defense forces and bandits.

The north in particular has seen intensified military clashes following the withdrawal of U.N. forces at the demand of the ruling junta, which set off fighting between the military and Islamist and separatist forces to control the area.

Kidnappings of foreigners and Malians are common.

In March, French journalist Olivier Dubois, 48, and 61-year-old American aid worker Jeffery Woodke — kidnapped in 2021 and 2016 respectively — were freed.

Dubois posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday that the news of van Deventer's release was "A wonderful Christmas present!!!!"

In a post-release interview with Radio France Internationale (RFI) earlier this year, Dubois had said he spent slightly more than a year with van Deventer in captivity and said the South African "needs to go home.”

Gift of the Givers helped in efforts to secure the 2017 release of Stephen McGown, another South African held in Mali for nearly six years.