The government of Mali said Thursday that the main opposition figure, Soumaila Cisse, had been kidnapped in the unstable center of the West African nation, just days before a delayed parliamentary election.
In an unprecedented first for a Malian politician of his rank, unidentified gunmen kidnapped Cisse and his team on Wednesday afternoon, his party announced.
The Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) party sounded the alarm later Wednesday after Cisse did not show up for an appointment and was no longer answering his phone.
Cisse is a former finance minister and has run for president three times.
The circumstances of his disappearance remain unclear, but the government and members of the URD have declared that it was an abduction.
URD spokesman Demba Traoré told reporters Thursday that Cisse was traveling with a group of 12 people on two jeeps when unidentified gunmen took them away.
Five people were released Thursday morning, he said, adding that two people from the released group were injured. One died later.
“During the kidnapping, there were gunshots,” he said, explaining that Cisse’s bodyguard had been hit.
“Unfortunately, he could not survive his injuries and died,” said Traoré.
Mali is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency that erupted in the north in 2012 and claimed the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Despite the presence of thousands of French and UN soldiers, the conflict in Mali engulfed the center of the country and spread to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Jihadists affiliated with Al-Qaeda are active in the area where Cisse and his team disappeared.
“All steps are being taken to locate the missing persons and return them to their families,” the Malian government said on Thursday in a statement, referring to the disappearance as an abduction.
Olivier Salgado, spokesperson for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, said the United Nations had deployed a helicopter to search for the missing politician and his associates.
European Union Ambassador to Mali Bart Ouvry also said on Twitter on Thursday that Cisse’s disappearance was worrying.
Cisse disappeared while campaigning for a long-awaited parliamentary poll due to take place on Sunday in Mali, which has been repeatedly delayed due to insecurity in the country.
Sunday’s vote is seen by many as a first step towards ending the spiral of violence in Mali.
After being postponed several times, the holding of legislative elections was a key recommendation of the December crisis talks, which aimed to explore non-military solutions to the country’s crisis.
The current harvest of deputies in the country was elected in 2013, in a ballot won by the party of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita at the Rally for Mali.
Another parliamentary vote was to take place at the end of 2018, after Keita’s re-election.
However, this has never been the case and the poll has been postponed several times for reasons such as a strike by judges and growing insecurity in Mali.
Keita announced Wednesday that a first ballot will take place on Sunday, despite rumors of a possible postponement due to the coronavirus.
Mali has so far recorded two cases of coronavirus, in two nationals recently arrived from France.
Keita said, however, that the vote would take place “scrupulously respect” sanitary measures.
Mali has interrupted flights to and from countries infected with the virus. Keita also announced a nationwide night curfew on Wednesday to limit its spread.