Swiss hostage in high spirits after Mali release

Special forces from Burkina Faso swept into rebel-held northern Mali on Tuesday aboard a helicopter and whisked a Swiss hostage to safety in a pre-arranged handover by Islamist rebels.

Beatrice Stockly, her face clear of the black turban the rebels had her wear, appeared tired but in high spirits on the helicopter flying her to Ouagadougou after the rebel group Ansar Dine handed her over in Timbuktu.

“I am offering you freedom chocolates,” she told the officials, security personnel and an AFP journalist on the helicopter, after fumbling through her leather satchel and, with a beaming smile, producing chocolate.

After a refueling stop in northern Burkina Faso, she landed in the Malian capital Ouagadougou, where she declined to speak to a throng of journalists.

Ansar Dine did not initially kidnap Stockly, a social worker in her 40s, security sources said, but they took custody of her following a shootout with a private militia and then brokered a deal with the Swiss government for her release.

Before flying out with the freed hostage, Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore’s chief military advisor, General Gilbert Djindjere, spoke with Ansar Dine militant Sanda Boumana under a tent.

Both men said no ransom was paid for the Swiss woman’s release.

“We never asked for anything,” Boumana said.

The Swiss foreign ministry thanked “all the people and the authorities who worked” on the operation, “in particular authorities from Mali and Burkina Faso.”

Stockly, a Christian who had refused to leave the northern Mali town of Timbuktu when it fell to Islamist extremists and Tuareg rebels on April 1st, “is fine, considering the circumstances,” the ministry statement said.

Djindjere said Stockly did not want to immediately return to Switzerland and would remain in Burkina Faso for a few days for “time to think”.

Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compoare has played a key role in securing the release of those kidnapped in the Sahel, particularly when Westerners are involved.

Ansar Dine’s assault on Timbuktu was backed by fighters from Al-Qaeda’s north Africa branch known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

A source in Timbuktu previously said Stockly had originally been in the hands of a private militia that wanted to sell her to AQIM.

A loose alliance of Tuareg and Islamist rebels took advantage of the political chaos in Mali’s capital that followed a March 22nd army coup by capturing the country’s vast desert north, including Timbuktu. But that alliance has splintered since the initial offensive.

Ansar Dine has imposed sharia law in areas under its control and has distanced itself from the Tuareg nationalist cause.

Security sources said Sunday that the Islamist group had rejected any intervention by humanitarian organisations on behalf of Stockly, saying it preferred to deal directly with the Swiss government.

Stockly was first captured roughly 10 kilometres outside Timbuktu by an unidentified armed group, security sources in the area previously told AFP.

They then tried to move her further away from the city but were confronted by Ansar Dine fighters who now control Timbuktu.

“There was an exchange of fire,” said one source, and the kidnappers “were forced to abandon the hostage.”

Following Stockly’s release, 19 hostages remain in the hands of AQIM and an Al-Qaeda splinter group called Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in the Sahel.

Among them are seven Algerian diplomats abducted at gunpoint on April 5th from their consulate in Gao, another key northern Malian town under rebel control.

A MUJAO member told AFP by telephone on Tuesday that the group had agreed to release the prisoners following talks with Ansar Dine.

“We made an agreement with our brothers from Ansar Dine,” the MUJAO member said.

In Bamako, the new leaders appointed earlier this month after the military junta agreed to stand down are struggling to form a transitional government.

Aside from re-establishing civilian rule, the government will also have to plot a strategy to reclaim the north from the collection of rebel groups that now control it.

The 15-nation west African bloc ECOWAS has floated the idea of a military intervention, but the details of the operation are far from resolved and Tuareg rebels say any intervention will prompt Tuaregs from neighbouring countries to join them in resisting the intervention.

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