Mali says it freed four militants with links to al-Qaida in exchange for securing the release earlier this week of French hostage Serge Lazarevic.

The African country's justice minister, Mohamed Ali Bathily, speaking to France24, said that the deal for Lazarevic, who was seized by Islamist militants three years ago, involved the swap.

"Yes, we did it and we have done it for Malians before, too," the justice minister said.

"Mali cannot deny that it freed them because it is a fact," he said. "Everyone knows, it serves no purpose to hide it, but Mali did it under a precise framework."

France has refused to confirm the quid-pro-quo swap, although Paris has been known to pay ransoms in the past.

The BBC reports:

"Two members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who allegedly took part in Mr Lazarevic's abduction have previously been named as having been released - Malians Mohamed Aly Ag Wadoussene and Haiba Ag Acherif."The Malian Human Rights Association told the BBC's Alex Duval Smith in Bamako it had learned that a further two militants, Tunisian national Oussama Ben Gouzzi and Habib Ould Mahouloud, from Western Sahara, were released last week."

The justice minister said a similar deal had been done to free about 30 of its nationals who were captured in the northern city of Kidal, a stronghold of Tuareg separatists, according to Reuters.

France24 says:

"Lazarevic was snatched by armed men in Mali on November 24, 2011, while on a business trip with fellow Frenchman Philippe Verdon in a kidnapping claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)."Verdon, who suffered from an ulcer and tachycardia – an abnormally fast heartbeat – was found shot dead last year, and those close to his family suggested he had been executed because he was weak."Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit