Sophie Pétronin: French aid worker slammed for returning to where she was taken hostage

France has blasted an aid worker for returning to the country where she was taken as a hostage.

Sophie Pétronin, 76, was captured by al-Qaida in 2016 while working in Gao, northeastern Mali.

She was released in October 2020 when the new Malian regime swapped dozens of jihadist prisoners for several hostages.

According to Mediapart, Pétronin returned to Mali in March despite being denied a visa. The outlet also reported over the weekend that Malian authorities have issued a search notice to “apprehend her”.

Pétronin, however, rejected the criticism, affirming being “at home” in Mali.

French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal told reporters on Wednesday that “of course, we deplore the return of Sophie Pétronin to Mali”.

“It is a form of irresponsibility with regard to her own security but also with regard to the security of our soldiers,” he said. “When we have nationals who are taken hostage abroad it is our soldiers who go to rescue them at the risk of their lives. We have soldiers who have been killed in operations to rescue hostages who had been taken prisoner in foreign countries. So we must also have respect for our soldiers.”

He added that the Foreign Ministry is monitoring the situation “very closely”.

The ministry’s advice for travel to Mali warns of “serious threats against Westerners” including “violent action in retaliation for recent terrorist casualties.”

Paris announced in September that French troops had killed the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara in a major blow to the terror organisation. Thousands of French troops have been deployed in the Sahel — which includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad — since 2013 to fight Islamic extremists and train local law enforcement. At least 51 French soldiers have lost their lives.

The ministry also stresses that “the threat of kidnapping is also high” particularly in the centre and north of the country “where French nationals may have a “market value” for terrorist groups.” It states that travel to some areas is “absolutely forbidden.”

Speaking to AFP shortly after Attal’s press briefing, Pétronin rejected the criticism: “Why irresponsible? I am at home here.”

“Yes, I have been in Mali for a while. But I’m not worried and I’m not concerned,” she said, adding: “I am doing well. And I am happy to be where I am. I’m not bothering anyone and no one is bothering me.”

“I don’t know if I’m wanted and why,” she also said.

Several political leaders on the right of the political spectrum have expressed their indignation at Pétronin’s return to Mali, including presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.

“This behaviour is not only irresponsible and ungrateful, it is indecent and unworthy,” the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National wrote on Twitter.

“200 jihadists were released to save Ms Petronin from captivity. These enemies of France were able to take up arms against our soldiers who are exposing their lives for our security,” she added.