An Italian priest abducted two years ago in Niger, close to the border with Burkina Faso, is among four hostages held by Islamist extremists who’ve been freed and flown to the capital of Mali, Bamako. The new Malian transitional government met the hostages, after Malian authorities freed scores of suspected militants over last weekend, fuelling expectations, according to Reuters, “of an imminent prisoner swap”.
It’s not clear if ransoms were paid or not.
Fr. Pier Luigi Maccalli, now 59, was kidnapped by unknown armed men from his parish of Bamoanga, about 125km from the Niger capital Niamey. His kidnap, from the southwest of Niger, had left the communities he served for 11 years in shock. He’s understood to have been freed in northern Mali.
Italy’s Foreign Minister, Luigi di Maio, tweeted: “Good news: Fr. Pier Luigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio [another Italian – believed to have been a tourist when kidnapped] are finally free and well.”
According to local Nigerien sources at the time, eight armed men on motorbikes had entered the priest’s parish at about 9pm. They attacked and kidnapped the priest from his bedroom, before heading off with him towards the border of Burkina Faso.
Fr. Maccalli is originally from the diocese of Crema in Cremona, Lombardy, northern Italy and is a member of the Society of African Missions (SAM). He had served previously in the Ivory Coast for several years. He was the first Catholic priest kidnapped in Niger but the third Westerner detained by armed men in Niger in recent years.
A US missionary had earlier been kidnapped in Niger’s northern town of Abalak. Jeff Woodke, who worked for Jeunesse en Mission Entraide et Developpement (JEMED) was abducted by unknown assailants late in the evening of Friday 14 October, 2016. A German worker had also been kidnapped.
Diara Banyoua, mayor of Makalondi, which also includes Bamoanga village, told World Watch Monitor two years ago that the abduction of the Italian priest was a hard blow for the population of Makalondi.
He recalled the atmosphere just few hours after the kidnapping as he visited the parish; dozens of people from various communities around Bamoanga had gathered spontaneously in the parish as they heard news of the kidnapping.
“There was a feeling of sorrow among them. Dozens gathered in silence. Others could hardly hide their emotions. They shed tears as they tried to express their emotions, saying: ‘How can this happen to someone who has been always giving a helping hand to people in need?’”
The Catholic Church had been active the Makalondi region for 50 years, running various development projects, including schools and health facilities.
Diara Banyoura, a member of the Niger parliament, said in September 2018 he “implored God to preserve the life of the Italian missionary” and appealed to the Niger government “to do whatever possible” in order to obtain his release. “It is difficult to understand that such things can happen just 100km away from Niamey, the capital,” he added.
Mgr. Laurent Lompo, the Archbishop of Niamey, told World Watch Monitor that the kidnapping, though the first targeting a Catholic missionary, had raised the issue of the presence of all Western missionaries in other regions of the country.
Mgr. Lompo, originally from the Makalondi region and the first Nigerien to hold his position, acknowledged the contribution of foreign missionaries. He said most of the projects carried out by the Catholic Church in Niger were funded by Western missionaries deployed on the field.