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Details Emerge About French Commando Raid That Freed Hostage Held for 1,224 Days in Mali

A French general said 20 elite soldiers were involved in the operation Monday to free a Dutch citizen kidnapped in 2011 by al Qaeda-affiliated militants.

by Matthieu Jublin
Apr 8 2015, 1:15am

Image via French Ministry of Defense

"Freedom!"

That was the jubilant cry bellowed by Dutch citizen Sjaak Rijke when he stepped off a plane Tuesday in Mali's capital after three years of being held hostage by al Qaeda-affiliated militants.

The 54-year-old Rijke was freed Monday in a pre-dawn raid carried out by French commandoes stationed in Mali's remote northeast as part of Operation Barkhane, an anti-Islamist military campaign in Africa's Sahel region.

Gen. Grégoire de Saint-Quentin, the head of the French military's special operations forces, told French radio station Europe 1 that 20 elite soldiers were involved in the raid that freed Rijke after 1,224 days of captivity. Members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a militant group active in northern Mali, kidnapped Rijke from a hotel in Timbuktu in November 2011.

"We try to surround the target by infiltrating as discreetly as we can, without making our presence known," de Saint-Quentin said.

The general said lookouts opened fire when they spotted the commandoes approaching. Two of the hostage takers were killed in the operation and two others surrendered. Rijke was freed "within seconds," de Saint-Quentin said.

According to de Saint-Quentin, Rijke was detained in a remote area, "far from anywhere, in a deserted zone."

"We had to employ sophisticated means to bring the assault team close enough during the infiltration," he said, confirming that the operation followed a lengthy "intelligence phase."

The general's statement appears to contradict an earlier assertion by French President François Hollande that France had no information on the whereabouts of the hostage, and that his discovery came as a "surprise" for French troops.

Despite being held for more than three years in the brutal desert environment, Rijke was in good health, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said.

Serge Lazarevic, a French AQIM hostage freed in December 2014, told France 2 he spent several months in captivity with Rijke and was worried about his health and morale. "Apparently he had no news from the country or from anyone," Lazarevic said. "He wasn't very optimistic about being released."

Related: The last French hostage held by Islamist militants in Mali has been released.

French troops are now working closely with authorities from Niger and Mali to locate a Romanian security officer kidnapped Saturday morning from a mine in neighboring Burkina Faso, 13 miles from the border with Mali.

Five armed men reportedly attacked a security patrol at the Pan African Minerals mine in Tambao. A police officer sustained severe wounds "to the head, the thorax and the pelvic region" in the attack, a mine employee told French radio station RFI.

"They told the [patrol] driver to run, and then they shot him in the thigh," the employee said. "He was the one who sounded the alarm."

Alain Antil, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations, speculated that the latest abduction "could be the work of mercenaries who intend to sell the hostage to more powerful groups, who have the power to negotiate and detain [hostages] over a long period of time."

Antil told VICE News that the French troops participating in Operation Barkhane are much better equipped to deal with hostage situations than local forces. "For missions this dangerous, troops need air capacity and discretion," Antil said.

Related: UN peacekeeper among three killed in rocket attack on base in northern Mali

A French military spokesman told VICE News on Tuesday that Barkhane troops could once again undertake hostage release operations if the mission is covered by "the framework of the fight against terrorist groups in the region."

Two years after a French military intervention successfully halted the advance of insurgent groups and helped the Malian government regain control of the country's north, the region is still racked by Islamist insurgents, criminal gangs, and ongoing clashes between separatist rebels and pro-government militias.

On Sunday, a young woman was killed and three other people were wounded in a rocket attack on the northern city of Gao. The incident came just one week after Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) militants claimed a deadly attack on a Red Cross truck traveling from Gao to Niger.

Related: Al Qaeda splinter group claims deadly attack on Red Cross aid workers in Mali

Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter@MatthieuJublin

Image via French Ministry of Defense