News comes after UK and South Africa report new and more contagious variants of virus, leading to travel restrictions.
Soumaila Cisse, Mali’s main opposition leader who was held hostage for six months earlier this year by an armed group and was considered a leading contender in the 2022 presidential election, has died in Paris. He was 71.
Ciss died after contracting COVID-19, his eldest son Bocar told The Associated Press news agency on Friday. “The doctors did everything to keep him alive, but that’s the way of God’s will,” he said.
The death throws Malian politics into new uncertainty. A former leader of the opposition in parliament, Cisse was the runner-up in the past three presidential elections and many thought he had the best chances of finally winning in 2022.
He was taken hostage by an al-Qaeda-affiliated group in March while campaigning for legislative elections in his hometown of Niafunke in northern Mali.
Amid public pressure, the Malian government obtained his liberation in October, along with that of French and Italian hostages, in exchange for the release of about 200 fighters from Malian prisons.
It was not known whether a ransom had been paid, though extremist groups have long funded their operations with such payments from European governments.
In an interview after being released from captivity, Cisse told France’s TV5 Monde that his captors moved the hostages by motorcycle, boat and even camel. He said he was held in more than 20 different locations.
While he said he was not abused physically or verbally, he described extremely difficult conditions in the desert, and said he lacked the medication he needed.
Cisse said he was able to listen to the radio and was angered by news of the August military coup that overthrew Mali’s democratically elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Mali’s interim leader, Sem Ba N’Daw, expressed his condolences to Cisse’s family and supporters on Friday, saying millions of Malians “are in shock” at the news.
Describing a meeting with Cisse after he was freed, he said Cisse’s “optimism had remained intact”, and said “the country still needed his experience and wisdom to face today’s challenges”.
Interim Prime Minister Moctar Ouane also expressed his condolences, tweeting that “all of Mali as well as the African continent mourns one of its brave sons”.
In his last Facebook post, on Christmas Eve, Cisse wished “an excellent holiday of joy and health” to Christians in his country and around the world, at a time when Mali is facing multiple crises – including the coronavirus pandemic.
An engineer and IT specialist by training, Cisse studied in Senegal and France, where he worked for big companies including IBM before returning to Mali.
No immediate funeral plans were announced.