The freeing of Dutch hostage Sjaak Rijke by French soldiers in Mali on Monday has raised new questions over the fate of South African hostage Stephen McGowan, who was captured with Rijke in Mali in November 2011.
McGowan’s father, Malcolm, who lives in Johannesburg, has been asked to keep a low profile by the department of international relations and co-operation, despite overwhelming concern for his son, who was kidnapped by al-Qaeda militants while on a road trip across Africa. He was on his way home to South Africa after a stint working in Britain.
Malcolm McGowan last month appealed to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene and try to speed up the process of trying to negotiate Stephen’s release.
McGowan’s request was acknowledged but there has been no formal response from Ramaphosa.
The Mail & Guardian spoke to McGowan telephonically on Monday following the release of Rijke.
“Now is the time to ask ‘where is our man’,” McGowan said.
Officially, efforts for the release of Stephen McGowan are in the hands of the department of international relations and co-operation. Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for the department, told the M&G in February this year that the department was handling the issue but could not convey any further information. Yesterday he reiterated that position.
On Monday morning, according to a statement by the French defence ministry, French Special Forces, together with soldiers from France’s Operation Barkhane, conducted a predawn raid on terrorist groups in northeastern Mali when Rijke was freed. Two militants were killed and two handed themselves over.
French President Francois Hollande told local media France was proud to have freed a man “deprived of his liberty for too long”.
However, Hollande indicated that liberating Rijke was not the objective of the raid, one among many in this part of Mali, where France has been chasing out Islamist terrorists since January 2013.
“It has a surprise for us, for our forces, to be able to free this hostage, since we had no information about the presence of this hostage,” Hollande is quoted as saying by the French daily Liberation.
McGowan, Rijke and Johan Gustafson, a Swedish national, were taken hostage while sitting in a restaurant in Timbuktu. A German tourist was killed during the capture.
The three hostages have been dubbed “the forgotten Timbuktu three” by international security websites because of the lack of media coverage of their cases compared with the high profile given to French hostages captured in Mali.
Four French hostages were freed in October 2013 following a dedicated media campaign and, in December last year, Serge Lazarevic – the last French hostage in Mali – was freed, allegedly after the payment of a ransom.
Video footage released by the hostage-takers has shown Lazarevic had contact with the Timbuktu three.
A hostage negotiator who has been following the case closely for the past three years and wants to remain anonymous, has told the M&G that the freeing of Rijke is a sign that the three were kept in separate locations.
He says authorities had asked the families to keep a low profile due to the sensitivity of the case.
The French defence ministry on Monday declined to comment on the fate of McGowan following the release of Rijke. Asked about his fate, a spokesperson said the ministry “cannot communicate on this issue”.