Niamey - Four Frenchmen kidnapped by al-Qaeda militants in
Niger were on their way back to France on Wednesday after more than three years in
a "nightmare" of captivity.
The four men, who were kidnapped by al-Qaeda in the Islamic
Maghreb (Aqim) in northern Niger in 2010, took off around 06:00 GMT in a white
government plane bound for Paris where they were expected to be met by
President Francois Hollande.
Hollande was to greet the quartet on their arrival at an
airport outside Paris after what he called "three years of suffering for
the families who lived through a nightmare".
"I want to express my gratitude to Niger's president,
who was able to obtain the release of our countrymen," Hollande added.
The exact circumstances of their release were not
immediately clear. But the French government said there had been no military
assault to free them and that no ransom had been paid, while Hollande credited
decisive help from his Niger counterpart.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told AFP the hostages had
been freed in neighbouring Mali, and were in "very good shape".
"They have been hostages for three years and the
nightmare is finally over," he said.
The four men appeared thin but otherwise in good health, an
AFP reporter at the scene said.
In a brief remark to AFP at the airport, one of them,
Thierry Dol, 32, said: "It was very difficult but it was the test of a
Francoise Larribe, who was kidnapped along with her husband
Daniel before she was freed in February 2011, said on learning of her husband's
release: "It's an emotional wave, a tsunami."
"I have never lost hope, even though there were moments
of dejection, fear and anguish," she said.
Dol, Larribe, Pierre Legrand and Marc Feret were kidnapped
on September 16, 2010, from a uranium mining compound in Arlit, north-central
Niger. They work for French nuclear giant Areva.
Speaking as he met the ex-hostages, Niger President
Mahamadou Issoufou said his country had worked for their release, but provided
"Since the kidnapping of the hostages three years ago,
Niger has worked on obtaining their release. Now it's done," he said,
congratulating the hostages for "regaining their freedom after months of
Legrand's mother, Pascale Robert, told BFMTV: "Now
we're waiting for them to physically return, to see them, to touch them."
'Negotiations in Mali desert'
The news of their release came days after regional security
sources in the town of Gao in Mali reported the presence of envoys in the Sahel
"to speed up negotiations towards freeing the French hostages".
France had officially denied sending envoys.
According to a high-ranking Nigerien source, the four were
taken to Niamey by a French plane from Anefis, in northeastern Mali near the
That was the site of final negotiations which included
Mohamed Akotey, a former Tuareg rebel who is a senior executive with an Areva
subsidiary in Niger.
The hostages were apparently held in different locations to
prevent them being freed in any French assault, and were brought together just
days before the release.
A Malian security source also said that "the final
negotiations took place in the Malian desert", adding that "eminent
Malians in the north provided timely assistance".
Mali's government welcomed the release but made no mention
of any negotiations or whether it took part.
Three other people who were kidnapped at the time -
Francoise Larribe, a Togolese and a Madagascan - were freed in February 2011.
Aqim had demanded at least $124m for the release of the
At least seven French hostages remain in captivity around
the world, including two snatched in Mali, one in Nigeria and four in Syria.
Aqimgrew out of a movement launched in the late 1990s by
radical Algerian Islamists who sought the overthrow of the Algiers government.
The organisation allied with al-Qaeda in 2006 and has spun a
network across tribal, clan, family and business lines that stretches across
the vast Sahel region abutting the southern Sahara desert.