A Canadian woman and an Italian man who were abducted 15 months ago in Burkina Faso have been released in the neighboring country of Mali, according to two officials briefed on the matter.
Edith Blais of Quebec and her Italian traveling companion, Luca Tacchetto, went missing in December 2018 in an area of Burkina Faso that is known to be a stronghold of the Islamic State’s local franchise, the same group responsible for killing four American soldiers in Niger the previous year.
An American official who had been briefed on their release said they were let go late Friday in the city of Kidal in Mali’s far north. It was not clear which group had been holding them or under what conditions they were released.
Ms. Blais and Mr. Tacchetto had been traveling by car from Italy, going through France, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania and Mali before arriving in Burkina Faso, according to reports in the Canadian news media.
For more than a decade and a half, Al Qaeda and groups associated with it have used Mali’s vast and inhospitable north as a way station for holding Western hostages, who are typically released only after hefty ransoms are paid.
Both the Canadian and Italian governments are believed to have paid ransoms in the past, including for the Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who was released in 2009 after the sum of 700,000 euros was paid to Al Qaeda’s local chapter, according to the terror group’s internal records. Italy has paid for the release of numerous citizens held by affiliates of both Al Qaeda and ISIS, including Mariasandra Mariani, an Italian tourist abducted in 2011, who was also held in Mali.
According to Corinne Dufka, the West Africa director for Human Rights Watch, Ms. Blais and Mr. Tacchetto were taken in Burkina Faso and later transported to Mali, crossing the border no later than January 2019.
The region has been infiltrated by both the local ISIS franchise, known as the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, and Al Qaeda’s affiliate, known by the acronym JNIM. Unlike in Syria, where the two terrorist outfits are at war, in West Africa the relationship between the two is more porous, with instances of collaboration.
It is unclear whether the ISIS affiliate eventually handed off the hostages to Al Qaeda, which is more active than ISIS in and around Kidal, the town where the two were released.