Two Western hostages freed after 15-month captivity in Africa's Sahel

BAMAKO (Reuters) – A Canadian woman and an Italian man kidnapped while traveling through Burkina Faso 15 months ago have been freed and are in good health, the president of neighboring Mali said on Saturday after meeting the pair.

Edith Blais and Luca Tacchetto, who went missing in December 2018, were found by peacekeeping troops near the northern Malian city of Kidal on Friday, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSMA said.

Jihadist groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State that are active in the region have kidnapped Westerners in the past, though it is not known who was responsible for the pair’s abduction or if any ransom was paid.

Blais and Tacchetto, who Canadian media reports said are both in their 30s, were flown on Saturday to the capital Bamako, where they met Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita at the presidential palace.

“It’s a joy,” Keita said, with Blais and Tacchetto standing on either side of him at the palace.

“These young people that you see next to me, magnificent, in great shape, beautiful … after having lived through an ordeal that we can only imagine. It’s by the grace of God,” Keita said in video footage shared by the U.N. spokesman.

Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne said he was “relieved” to confirm that the two were free.

“The Government of Canada will continue to engage Mali and Burkina Faso at the highest levels, and will work with international partners to pursue those responsible for this crime and bring them to justice,” he said in a statement.

Security has deteriorated in recent years across Africa’s Sahel region, a semi-arid band beneath the Sahara Desert, where hundreds of civilians were killed last year by the jihadists and ethnic militias.

Western powers including former colonial master France and the United States have poured money and troops to combat the jihadists, but the violence has continued to get worse.

According to Menastream, a risk consultancy that monitors jihadist activity, 10 foreign nationals from nine different countries, including France and Australia, are still being held captive in the region.

Canadian national Kirk Woodman was kidnapped in January 2019 from a mining site where he was working in Burkina Faso and found dead later the same week.

While Islamic State claimed responsibility, security sources told Reuters they believed he actually died during a botched attempt by a criminal gang to sell him on to another group.

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