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French hostages released after three years return to France

The four men were kidnapped in 2010 by the North African wing of al-Qaida.

Pierre Legrand, left, one of four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants for three years in the African Sahel,
Pierre Legrand, left, one of four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants for three years in the African Sahel,
Image: (AP Photo/Tagaza Djibo)

FOUR FRENCHMEN HELD hostage by al-Qaida militants for three years in the African Sahel have been released and flown home to France.

President Francois Hollande and their families were waiting on the tarmac at the military airport outside Paris to greet the men in an emotional homecoming.

Kidnapped

Images on French television showed the plane landing this morning. The men — Pierre Legrand, Thierry Dol, Marc Feret and Daniel Larribe — spent their first night of freedom in the Niger capital of Niamey.

At the time of their capture, the four were working in Arlit, Niger, where the French nuclear giant Areva operates a uranium mine.

President Francois Hollande announced the release Tuesday and credited Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, who later appeared on television with the hostages. The men, who worked for the Areva nuclear company when taken, had long beards and some wore turbans and brown robes. They did not speak.

imageThierry Dol, center, one of four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants for three years in the African Sahel. (AP Photo)

Release

Officials gave few details on the release, but the French defense minister said there was no assault and that France did not pay a ransom. “There was an initiative taken by the network” of the Niger president “which allowed the liberation without a clash,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told France’s TF 1 television.

The four freed Frenchmen were captured in September 2010 by the North African wing of al-Qaida and spirited from their dormitories in the town of Arlit, Niger, where Areva, a Frenchstate-run nuclear company, operates a uranium mine.

Officials had long suspected the hostages were being held in northern Mali, a harsh desert area where there is no tree cover and the blazing midday heat can soar to 40 degrees Celsius.

The question of whether ransom was paid to procure their release immediately rose to the fore.

Hollande had made clear his government would not pay ransoms to free the captives. That sparked an outcry from families of captives in West Africa, where hostage-taking has been a lucrative business for radicals. Fear was redoubled when in January France invaded Mali as part of an anti-terror offensive.

imageFile photo shows hostage’s families, friends and activists demonstrating, in Aix en Provence, southern France, to mark 1,000 days since four French hostages were kidnapped in Niger. (AP Photo)

Ransom

Pascal Lupart, who, as the head of an association representing friends and families of the hostages, is in touch with those investigating the case, said he was told Areva paid a ransom for the captives. He did not know the amount, however, and an Areva press officer, Julien Duperray, refused to comment on the claim.

Former French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet also downplayed the notion — held by many who have observed the case — that Areva would pay a ransom in lieu of a direct payment by the government. “One cannot imagine that a state company would do the contrary” and pay to free the men, Longuet said on BFM-TV.

Global intelligence company Stratfor estimates that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has carried out at least 18 kidnappings since 2003, raising an estimated $89 million in ransom payments.

Read: 40 years ago, this is how ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ was born>

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Associated Press

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