Reuters

A mayor in northern Mali known for serving as a mediator for Western hostages said Sunday he has been freed after being held captive for around three weeks.

“All I can say for now is that I am free,” Tarkint mayor Baba Ould Cheikh told AFP by telephone. “I’m at home now.”

A relative confirmed the release, telling AFP he had seen Cheikh earlier in the day, adding that his abduction by six gunmen sometime between January 21 and 23 had been due to “a private matter”.

A security source said at the time that the abduction was carried out either “by people he had a disagreement with, or Islamists”.

Mali’s government signed a peace agreement with coalitions of non-jihadist armed groups in the north in June 2015. But Islamist insurgents remain active, and large tracts of the former French colony are lawless.

The mayor had been named in an enquiry into a drug-smuggling operation in 2009 involving a Boeing 727 flown from Venezuela and burnt after unloading the cargo in the northern Gao region, according to the UN drugs agency.

He was arrested for cocaine trafficking in April 2013 but released months later due to lack of evidence.

Islamist extremists linked to Al-Qaeda took control of Mali’s desert north in early 2012, but were largely driven out in an ongoing French-led military operation launched in January 2013.

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