BAMAKO (Reuters) - A Dutch man freed in a French commando raid on al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in northern Mali arrived in the capital on Tuesday where he was reunited with his wife after more than three years in captivity.
Sjaak Rijke, a 54-year-old train conductor, was kidnapped in November 2011 in Timbuktu while on holiday with his wife. She escaped the gunmen, who took three captives.
He was freed on Monday in a pre-dawn raid by French commandos belonging to Barkhane, France’s region-wide counter-insurgency operation.
Wearing sunglasses and a long beard as he arrived at Bamako airport just before midday (8 a.m. ET), Rijke appeared emaciated but in good spirits.
“I’m happy to be here alive. My detention was not a nightmare,” he told journalists following a meeting with Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. He was also met at the airport by the ambassadors of France and the Netherlands.
The French forces killed two militants and captured two others in the raid, but French President Francois Hollande said they had not been aware that Rijke was with the group until he was discovered.
“I congratulate the Barkhane force. This is what we expect of them,” President Keita told reporters. “Imagine what this man went through. You know the region of Tessalit. The heat alone is torture.”
France led a military intervention in 2013 against al Qaeda-linked Islamists who had seized the desert north a year earlier, following a Tuareg uprising and a military coup in Bamako.
It has since created Barkhane, a 3,000-strong force, to track down Islamist militants across an arid band stretching across five countries from Chad in the east to Mauritania in the west.
Despite driving fighters from major population centers in northern Mali, remnants of the Islamist groups continue to launch regular attacks there.
A forestry official was killed on Monday in the village of Diafarabe in the northern region of Mopti, the government said. Two peacekeepers from Mali’s U.N. mission were injured the same day when their vehicle struck a landmine near the town of Kidal, the mission said on Tuesday.
Reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Robin Pomeroy