Mali has confirmed that four Islamist militants were freed in exchange for the release of French hostage Serge Lazarevic this week.
“Yes, we did it and we have done it for Malians before, too,” said Justice Minister Mohamed Ali Bathily.
Mr Lazarevic was seized by armed men in Mali in 2011 and was the last French hostage in the region still being held by al-Qaeda-linked militants.
France had refused to confirm reports of a prisoner exchange.
“Here it concerned a citizen who comes from a country that came to help us, when our country was in a critical situation,” Mr Bathily told France 24 television, referring to France’s military intervention against insurgents in Mali last year.
“The authorities of his country were fighting to release the hostages. Mali for its reputation and honour could only help to save the life of the hostage.”
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 organisation’s head, Moctar Mariko, said releasing the men was an insult to Malians who had died in the conflict with the insurgents.
“If this prisoner swap is considered a victory for French diplomacy, we see it as total disrespect for the victims of Mali’s crisis… We want them [the militants] recaptured and brought to court in a proper manner.”
Mr Lazarevic, 51, was taken while on a business trip with fellow Frenchman Philippe Verdon.
Mr Verdon, who had suffered from health problems, was killed by his captors last year. They said it was in retaliation for France’s intervention in Mali.