Tuesday 22 August 2017

French special forces free Dutch hostage in raid on al-Qa’ida in Mali

French special forces unexpectedly found and freed a Dutch hostage during a dawn assault on al-Qa’ida fighters in the Sahara desert in northern Mali yesterday - Sjaak Rijke (54) was kidnapped more than three years ago (AFP PHOTO/AL-JAZEERA/HO)
French special forces unexpectedly found and freed a Dutch hostage during a dawn assault on al-Qa’ida fighters in the Sahara desert in northern Mali yesterday - Sjaak Rijke (54) was kidnapped more than three years ago (AFP PHOTO/AL-JAZEERA/HO)

David Chazan

French special forces unexpectedly found and freed a Dutch hostage during a dawn assault on al-Qa’ida fighters in the Sahara desert in northern Mali yesterday.

Sjaak Rijke (54) was kidnapped more than three years ago with two other westerners – a Swede and a South African – but there was no further news of them.

The commandos killed and captured several jihadis during a raid on a position near Tessalit, in Mali’s remote northeast, but were “surprised” to discover a hostage, according to French President François Hollande.

He said Mr Rijke, a train driver abducted during a “dream trip” across the Sahara with his wife Tilly, was in as good health as possible after his years in captivity.

“It was a surprise for us and for our troops to be able to free a hostage,” he told French television. “We did not have any information about the presence of a hostage.”

The commandos who freed him “neutralised the terrorist group” they were targeting, Mr Hollande said. He presented the raid as part of a routine operation by French forces combating militants in west Africa. France was largely successful in routing an al-Qa’ida-linked insurgency in northern Mali two years ago, but maintains a 3,000-strong force in the region.

A UN source said the French “took a lot of risks” to rescue Mr Rijke after realising he was there. Further details were not given because at least two other westerners remain in captivity, the source said.

Mr Rijke “is doing well under the circumstances”, Bert Koenders, the Dutch foreign minister, said, adding that he was under the care of Dutch embassy staff and soldiers. About 500 Dutch troops are serving with the UN force in Mali.

“I’m happy and relieved that this terrible period of uncertainty and sadness has been brought to an end,” Mr Koenders said.

Among those still believed to be held are Swede Johan Gustafson and a South African, who were seized at gunpoint with Mr Rijke from a Timbuktu hotel in November 2011.

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