April 6, 2015 / 10:34 AM / 4 years ago

French commandos free Dutch hostage from al Qaeda in Mali

PARIS (Reuters) - French commandos freed a Dutch hostage from an al Qaeda-linked group in Mali on Monday, more than three years after he was taken captive while on holiday with his wife, French and Dutch officials said.

Sjaak Rijke, a 54-year-old train conductor who was kidnapped in Timbuktu in November 2011, was freed in a pre-dawn raid and has been transferred “safe and sound” to a temporary base in Tessalit, in north-east Mali. His wife had escaped armed gunmen, who took three captives.

French forces killed two militants and captured two others in the operation, said Lieutenant Colonel Michel Sabatier, a spokesman for Barkhane, the French counter-insurgency operation in the region.

French president Francois Hollande said the assault on the Islamist militant group was not designed to free the hostage and they found him by chance.

“It was a surprise for us, for our forces, to be able to free this hostage as we did not have any information on the presence of this hostage,” Hollande said. “Our battle against terrorism in Mali is not over.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said Rijke was in good condition under the circumstances and receiving medical treatment. He said Rijke would soon be reunited with his family. In his home town, Woerden, residents flew the Dutch flag to mark his release.

“The Netherlands has continuously worked in recent years to bring this hostage-taking to an end,” a government statement said. “This is fantastic news for Sjaak and his family.”

In November, Rijke’s captors, the North African al Qaeda-affiliated group AQIM, issued a video of him along with French national Serge Lazarevic, in which they asked for help from their leaders.

Lazarevic, held captive in the Sahara for three years, was released the following month in exchange for four Islamist militants with ties to al Qaeda in north Africa.

France intervened against al Qaeda-linked militants in its former colony of Mali in January 2013. It has since created Barkhane, a 3,000-strong force to track down Islamist militants across a band of the Sahara desert stretching across five countries from Chad in the east to Mauritania in the west.

Dutch troops have been deployed in Mali as part of security and peacekeeping missions under the aegis of the United Nations.

Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by John Stonestreet, Larry King and Giles Elgood

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