A French hostage being held by Islamic extremists was freed on Tuesday amid claims of a prisoner swap with his Al-Qaida abductors.
While Serge Lazarevic, 50, was on his way back to Paris, prison officials in Mali were furious after two men linked to his kidnapping and the murder of a second Frenchman walked free from jail.
Lazarevic, who holds both French and Serbian nationalities, had spent three years as a prisoner of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) and was the last French national being held hostage anywhere in the world.
On Tuesday, the French government, which has always insisted it does not pay ransoms, refused to talk about whether a deal had been done.
However, on Saturday, just days before Lazarevic’s release, two Aqim prisoners were removed from their cells at the central remand centre in the Malian capital Bamako, and flown to the Niger capital Niamey, according to a prison guard.
The prison guard, who spoke to The Guardian on condition of anonymity, said prisoners Mohamed Ali Ag Wadossène (also known as Ahmed Ghaly Ag Waddossène) and Heiba Ag Acherif were awaiting trial for their role in the abduction of Lazarevic and Frenchman Philippe Verdon.
The pair was snatched after a group of armed men burst into their hotel rooms in northern Mali, where Verdon was reportedly on a business trip in November 2011. In March 2013, the Islamist group claimed they had shot Verdon as a spy. An Aqim spokesman said the Frenchman had been killed “in response to France’s intervention in the north of Mali”. Verdon’s body was found in July 2013 when an autopsy showed he had been killed with a bullet in the head.
Operation Serval, which aimed to repel Al-Qaida militants who had taken control of the north of the country and were threatening to move south to Bamako, was launched by Paris in January 2013.
On Saturday, staff at the Bamako prison were particularly angered by Wadossène’s release as in June this year he overpowered one of his prison guards, shot another one dead and fled the prison. A further 23 prisoners escaped in the chaos. Wadossène was captured in the Malian capital nine days later.
“We had our eye on Wadossène. We knew what he is capable of. We never expected to see him just walk out of the prison like that,” the guard said.
On Sunday, the reputable Bamako-based website, sahelien.com, quoted an unnamed northern Malian official saying a hostage negotiator was in Niamey for the swap.
In a statement, the Elysée Palace said Lazarevic, who was released near Kidal in the north of Mali, was “in reasonably good health despite the terrible conditions of his captivity”.
French president François Hollande said in a statement: “It is a day of joy. We no longer have a single hostage in any corner of the world and we must make sure there are no more.”
Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, wrote on Twitter: “A long ordeal has come to an end, a life can go on. Immense relief for Serge Lazarevic”.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, now head of France’s UMP opposition party, tweeted: “It’s with immense relief that I learn of the freeing of Serge Lazarevic, who is the last French hostage in the world”.
The French refused to give any details about the conditions for Lazarevic’s release, saying only it was the result of efforts by the presidents of Niger and Mali.
Contacted by The Guardian, neither the foreign ministry in Paris nor the Elysée would comment on the alleged prisoner exchange.
However, David Thomson, a journalist for the French international radio station RFI, and a specialist in Islamist groups told Le Monde it was “probable” a ransom had been paid as well as an exchange of prisoners agreed in return for Lazarevic’s release.