during a dawn assault on al-Qaeda fighters in the Sahara desert in
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 jihadists during a raid on a position near Tessalit, in
Mali’s remote northeast, but were “surprised” to discover a hostage,
according to President Francois Hollande. President Hollande maintains Dutchman’s discovery was a ‘surprise’.
Released hostage Sjaak Rijke has lunch at a French special forces camp in northern Mali, after being freed yesterday. Photo / AP
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
“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.
was largely successful in routing an al-Qaeda-linked insurgency in
northern Mali two years ago but maintains a 3000-strong force in the
A United Nations source said the French “took a lot of
risks” to rescue Mr Rijke after realising he was there. Mr Rijke “is
doing well under the circumstances”, Bert Koenders, the Dutch Foreign
Minister, said, adding he was under the care of Dutch embassy staff and
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.
Rijke appeared in a video released on his 1000th day in captivity five
months ago with a French hostage, Serge Lazarevic, the last of 14 French
nationals thought to have been held by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Lazarevic, 51, was released weeks later in exchange for the release of
four jihadists from prisons in Mali, the Malian authorities said. The
French government denied reports of a ransom payment.
have brought Islamist groups tens of millions of pounds and France has
often been accused of paying to secure the freedom of its citizens.
Paris strongly denies the allegations.
Officially, yesterday’s raid marked the first time French forces have rescued a hostage in the region.
four French hostages were freed two years ago after being kidnapped in
neighbouring Niger, a French company was reported to have paid nearly
-15 million ($29.6 million).
France was accused of paying -12 million ($23.6 million) for the release of four French journalists in Syria last year.
• The fate of two other hostages seized at gunpoint with Sjaak Rijke in November is uncertain.
A Swede, Johan Gustafson, and a South African, were taken from a
Timbuktu hotel in November 2011. A German who tried to resist capture
• Mrs Tilly Rijke managed to escape capture by hiding in a tent in the roof of the couple’s Toyota Landcruiser.