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Quebec woman, Italian companion released in West Africa: Champagne

MONTREAL — A Canadian woman and her Italian travelling companion who were suspected to have been abducted in West Africa 15 months ago have been released. Edith Blais, 35, of Sherbrooke, Que.

MONTREAL — A Canadian woman and her Italian travelling companion who were suspected to have been abducted in West Africa 15 months ago have been released.

Edith Blais, 35, of Sherbrooke, Que., and Luca Tacchetto, 31, had been travelling by car in southwestern Burkina Faso, heading to Toga to do volunteer work when they vanished around Dec. 15, 2018.

A month later, Burkina Faso's security minister referred to the pair's disappearance as a kidnapping, but the Canadian government did not confirm that, saying only that officials hadn't ruled out any possibilities.

On Saturday, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne confirmed in a tweet that Blais was coming home.

"I just spoke to Edith Blais and Luca Tacchetto. I can confirm they are safe," Champagne tweeted, thanking his counterpart in Mali, the country's president and the United Nations Mission in that country for their support, as well officials in Burkina Faso.

"We look forward to Edith returning home."

A source told The Canadian Press they arrived in Bamako, the capital of Mali, just before noon local time on Saturday after spending the night at a UN camp in Kidal, in the northeastern part of the country.

The source said the pair apparently fled their captors, flagged down a private vehicle and asked to be taken to United Nations camp in the area.

Instead, they were dropped off at a UN checkpoint where soldiers with the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in the area took them the rest of the way. After spending the night at the camp, they were flown to the capital on Saturday.

The UN mission's spokesman tweeted a photo of Blais and Tacchetto, both wearing white UN human rights T-shirts and sweatpants and smiling, with the caption "They are free." He later tweeted photos of the pair meeting with Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Al Qaeda and other militant groups have operated in northern Mali for more than a decade and have kidnapped a number of Western hostages, typically holding them until ransoms are paid.

Senior Liberal cabinet ministers met with Blais' family in Quebec's Eastern Townships region in January 2019 and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the time he believed Blais was still alive.

In March 2019, Human Rights Watch had indicated in a report the pair had been abducted and taken to Mali.

Another Canadian, Kirk Woodman, was found dead in northern Burkina Faso in 2019, near the border with Mali and Niger. An executive with a Vancouver-based mining company, Woodman had been kidnapped a day earlier by gunmen as he worked on a gold mining project.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Mar. 14, 2020.

Helen Moka, The Canadian Press

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