Spe­cial forces free Dutch hostage in Mali four years af­ter kid­nap­ping

The China Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHEL MOUTOT

French spe­cial forces on Mon­day res­cued a Dutch na­tional kid­napped nearly four years ago in north­ern Mali by AQIM Is­lamists in an op­er­a­tion that killed a num­ber of sus­pected ji­hadists, of­fi­cials said.

France’s De­fense Min­istry said Dutch hostage Sjaak Ri­jke, kid­napped in Tim­buktu in Novem­ber 2011, was freed dur­ing “mil­i­tary ac­tion car­ried out by the French army’s spe­cial forces.”

“This com­bat ac­tion has also led to the cap­ture of sev­eral in­di­vid­u­als,” added the min­istry.

French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande also spoke of the op­er­a­tion, say­ing the freed hostage had been trans­ported to a safe lo­ca­tion and that a num­ber of sus­pected ji­hadists had been killed.

He also sig­naled that French sol­diers were not aware of the hostage’s lo­ca­tion be­fore the raid against the ex­trem­ists.

“Sev­eral hours ago, French spe­cial forces were able to carry out an attack against a ter­ror­ist group and were able not only to neu­tral­ize the group, but also ob­tain the free­dom ... of a Dutch man who had been held hostage since Novem­ber 2011,” Hol­lande told jour­nal­ists.

He said the as­sault oc­curred near Tes­salit in Mali’s far north, near the bor­der with Al­ge­ria.

Asked whether the hostage was in good con­di­tion, Hol­lande said “as much as pos­si­ble af­ter four years of cap­tiv­ity.”

“It was a sur­prise for us -- for our forces -- to be able to free this hostage be­cause we did not have in­for­ma­tion” on his pres­ence, he said, with­out pro­vid­ing fur­ther de­tails.

Dutch For­eign Min­is­ter Bert Koen­ders said Ri­jke was “do­ing well con­sid­er­ing the cir­cum­stances.”

“It is ex­tra­or­di­nary news for Sjaak and his fam­ily,” Koen­ders said. “I am happy and grate­ful that this hor­ri­ble pe­riod of un­cer­tainty and dis­tress is over.”

‘Battle against ter­ror­ism’

Gun­men had stormed into Ri­jke’s ho­tel cap­tur­ing him as well as a South African and a Swede, both of whom are still be­ing held.

In Novem­ber 2014, AQIM re- leased a video of Ri­jke mak­ing a state­ment on the 1,000th day of his cap­tiv­ity.

Also seen on the video was French­man Serge Lazare­vic, who was later freed in a prisoner swap against four ji­hadists in Mali.

Mali’s vast desert north is riven by eth­nic ri­val­ries and an Is­lamist in­sur­gency.

Ji­hadists linked to al- Qaida con­trolled Mali’s north for more than nine months in 2012 un­til they were routed by a French­led mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion, but ex­trem­ist fighters re­main ac­tive through­out the restive north­east.

Mali is also strug­gling with eth­nic Tuareg mil­i­tants fight­ing the army over north­ern ter­ri­tory they claim as their home­land and call Aza­wad.

Hol­lande said “the battle against ter­ror­ism in Mali is not over. We still have 3,000 men in the re­gion -- not only in Mali -- to carry out the battle against ter­ror­ism.”

The troops he spoke of serve un­der the Barkhane op­er­a­tion tar­get­ing ji­hadists in the Sa­hel re­gion.

France an­nounced last month that it would fur­ther boost its mil­i­tary pres­ence in the Sa­hel to also sup­port the fight against Boko Haram.

Mali has urged sep­a­ratist rebels in the north to com­mit to a peace deal signed by the gov­ern­ment sev­eral weeks ago, say­ing their claimed home­land “does not ex­ist.”

AFP

A hand­out pic­ture taken and re­leased on Mon­day, April 6 by the French Army and the French De­fense Min­istry shows two sol­diers of the French spe­cial forces stand­ing next to Dutch na­tional Sjaak Ri­jke, cen­ter, as he gets off of a Cara­cal He­li­copter af­ter be­ing re­leased, at a French Mil­i­tary air­base in Mali.

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