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Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, one of the six hostages held by Al-Qaeda's Mali branch, in a video grab made on July 2, 2017.-/AFP/Getty Images

A prominent Malian politician and three European hostages were en route to the capital after being freed by Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida, the Malian government confirmed late Thursday.

While relatives of Soumaila Cisse and French aid worker Sophie Petronin had been notified of their release on Tuesday, news of the release of two Italian hostages came only in a Malian government statement once they were aboard the flight.

“Father Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio, kidnapped in Africa between 2018 and 2019, are free and are returning to Italy!” tweeted Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte.

Maccalli is a Roman Catholic missionary priest from the African Missionary Society (SMA) who was kidnapped from his Bomoanga parish in Niamey, Niger, according to the Avvenire newspaper of the Italian bishops conference.

Chiacchio was taken from central Mali in 2019, according to Menastream, an independent risk and research consultancy firm specializing in the Sahel and North Africa. The two men were believed to be held by same extremists though after a video was released of them together back in April.

The flight took off just before 7 p.m. local time (1900 GMT) from the northern town of Tessalit and was expected to arrive about 2 1/2 hours later, presidential spokesman Adam Thiam said.

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the news as “a great relief.”

The hostages' release came just days after Malian authorities freed nearly 200 jihadist prisoners over the weekend, which had fuelled speculation that a prisoner exchange was imminent.

But there was a 48-hour delay between relatives of Cisse and Petronin were first notified and when the former hostages showed up for the flight in Tessalit. Malian authorities indicated their release had taken place Tuesday.

There was no immediate information on whether a ransom was paid. Extremist groups in the Sahel have long funded their organizations through kidnappings.

The al-Qaida-linked group known as JNIM and its associates are also believed to be holding Australian doctor Ken Elliott, Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti, South African national Christo Bothma, Swiss national Beatrice Stockly and Romanian citizen Julian Ghergut.

In March, extremists ambushed Cisse’s vehicle while he and his entourage were campaigning in northern Mali. The three-time presidential candidate was later re-elected to his parliament seat while in captivity.

The only proof that he was still alive was a handwritten letter delivered in August. Negotiations for his release had appeared to stall after a military coup overthrew democratically-elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who beat Cisse in the 2013 and 2018 elections.

While a transitional civilian government has been chosen, new elections are being organized with a 2022 deadline, providing a possible new political avenue for Cisse.

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