Authorities Fear for Safety of Missing Woman Who Spent 4 Years as Al-Qaeda Hostage

Malian authorities are concerned for the safety of a French woman who apparently returned to Mali after being held as a hostage by Al-Qaeda for four years in the West African country, the Associated Press reported.

The woman reportedly re-entered the country through a land border in March, about five months after she was freed, despite her visa bid being denied.

Sophie Petronin, 76, worked in Mali for years before her abduction in 2016. She decided to return in order to reconnect with her adopted daughter after she experienced issues transitioning back into life in Europe, French media reported.

Her return troubled French and Malian authorities, who feared that she might encounter further danger back in the country where she was detained for years. An October 29 message to Malian police said that Petronin was traveling to the town of Sikasso, and authorities asked law enforcement to transport her back to Bamako, Mali's capital, if she was found, AP reported.

"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.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Sophie Petronin Returns to Mali
Malian authorities said they are actively searching for Sophie Petronin, a French-Swiss woman who spent four years as an Al-Qaeda hostage and who now has returned illegally to the West African country. Above, French President Emmanuel Macron (right) stands as Petronin (center) is greeted by relatives upon her arrival at the Villacoublay military airport near Paris on October 9, 2020. Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool Photo via AP

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," Attal said. "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. 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.

Authorities Fear for Petronin
Malian authorities are concerned for the safety of Sophie Petronin, who apparently returned to Mali being held as a hostage by Al-Qaeda for four years in the West African country. Petronin walks next to French European and Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (right), French President Emmanuel Macron (center), her son Sebastien Chadaud Petronin (third from left) and family members after suspected jihadist hostage-takers freed her from nearly four years of captivity in Mali. Gonzalo Fuentes/POOL/AFP via Getty Images