BAMAKO – Malian authorities said Wednesday they are searching for a French woman who spent four years as an al-Qaida hostage and who now has returned to the West African country despite being denied a visa.
Sophie Petronin, 76, spent years working in Mali before her 2016 abduction and apparently crossed a land border back into the country in March, about five months after she was freed.
French media reported that she had returned to reunite with her adopted daughter after difficulties adjusting to life back in Europe. French and Malian authorities both expressed dismay about her decision to return, fearing for her safety.
An Oct. 29 message distributed to Malian police that was obtained by The Associated Press indicated that Petronin was headed toward the town of Sikasso. Authorities called for her to be brought back to Bamako if located.
“Sophie (Petronin) is wanted by the gendarmerie. And as it is an investigation, I do not want to talk about the reason for this search, but the judicial authorities have many questions to ask her,” said Amadou Sangho at the Ministry of Internal Security.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal also expressed alarm about Petronin's return to Mali, where foreigners remain at risk of being abducted.
“We deplore the return of Sophie Petronin to Mali. It’s a form of irresponsibility toward her own security and that of security of our troops.”
“When we have citizens who are taken hostage, it is our troops who save them, at a risk to their own lives," he added. "There were soldiers who were killed in operations to save hostages imprisoned in foreign countries. You have to have respect for our soldiers.”
In an interview with the French news outlet Mediapart, Petronin said she has been in Mali since March, having crossed the land border with Senegal after the Malian Embassy in Switzerland refused to issue her a visa.
After her release, Petronin said she had converted to Islam while in captivity and called her detention “a spiritual retreat.” She asked to be called by the name Mariam, not Sophie.
French journalist Anthony Fouchard, who stayed with her after her release, told French broadcaster France Info that Petronin had longed to return to West Africa and had been living “a rather peaceful retirement” in Bamako until last week.
“Her life for the last 25 years has been devoted to Mali,” he told France Info. “She has her adopted daughter who is still there and she wanted to find her and I think that this can be understood by the majority of people.”
Petronin had lost a son years ago in a mountain accident and then vowed never to return to Europe, Fouchard said. The adjustment after being repatriated following many years in Mali was a difficult one for her, he added.
“She is ending her life where she always wanted to end it,” he said.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.