Mali paid €2m ransom for release of opposition leader, says intermediary

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Mali’s military government paid two million euros for the release of opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, who was freed in October after being kidnapped by gunmen, according to an intermediary who negotiated on behalf of the Malian authorities.

“I know that the transitional authorities paid two million euros to free Cissé,” Ahmada Ag Bibi, a former member of the Ansar Dine jihadist group, told RFI’s David Baché.

Ag Bibi said he acted as an intermediary on behalf of Mali, alongside the intelligence services, for the freeing of Cissé, French hostage Sophie Pétronin and two other Italian hostages captured by the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin group.

Bamako freed over 100 alleged or convicted jihadists as part of negotiations to secure the release of Cissé and Pétronin, it was reported at the time.

Ag Bibi wasn’t clear on whether ransoms had been paid for the three Western hostages: “Me, I’m not aware of anything at all for the French state,” he said, saying he was only in contact with the Malian authorities.

“The Malian state paid the ransom, the Malian state mobilised its plane, men and the prisoners, these were prisoners in Malian prisons, so it was the Malian state that did everything,” Ag Bibi said.

Cissé, a former opposition leader, finance minister and three-time presidential candidate, was captured just days ahead of legislative elections in March 2020 as he campaigned in his home region of Niafounké.

After leaving Ansar Dine, Ag Bibi joined the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), an armed Tuareg group that signed a peace deal in 2015.

He also spent time as an Malian MP and has previously worked several times as an intermediary between hardline groups in northern Mali.

Malian authorities have signalled their intention to negotiate with jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) and Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin.

“You must find peace, Malians must speak amongst one another, whether it’s the jihadists or the other side, you must find a solution because war doesn’t suit anyone,” Ag Bibi told Baché in an exclusive interview.

Northern Mali fell under control of hardline Islamist groups in 2012, when they exploited an armed Toureg-led insurrection.

The Islamists were ousted by a French-led military operation in 2013, but hardline groups have continued to mount attacks on civilians, the Malian army, as well as French and UN forces.

A military junta took control of the country in August 2020, when they overthrew former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.