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French hostage held nearly a year escapes in Nigeria

18 November 2013, 06:43

Abuja - A French engineer abducted by Islamist militants in Nigeria last year has managed to escape, slipping out of his cell and hailing a taxi to take him to police, officials said Sunday.

President Francois Hollande announced that Francis Collomp, 63, was free after being taken by Islamist militants on December 19, 2012, in Katsina.

Collomp escaped in the northern city of Zaria on Saturday while his captors were praying, said Femi Adenaike Adeleye, the police commissioner in the regional capital of Kaduna.

"He watched his captors' prayer time. They always prayed for 15 minutes. And yesterday they did not lock the door to his cell," Adeleye said. "While they were at prayer he sneaked out and began to run."

Collomp stopped a motorcycle taxi and had it take him to the nearest police station, from where he was brought to Kaduna.

Adeleye said Collomp had been held in the city of Kano after his abduction and about two months ago brought to Zaria.

"He's hale and hearty," Adeleye said.

'Lost 30 kilos'

Collomp left Abuja on a flight for Paris late Sunday, accompanied by France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, a diplomatic source told AFP by telephone from the airport.

Didier Le Bret, the head of the French foreign ministry's crisis centre, earlier told AFP Collomp was "weakened" but in good enough health to travel.

He is expected to arrive in Paris around 6:00 am (0500 GMT) Monday where he will be met by the French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Collomp "lost 30 kilos" (66 pounds) during his ordeal but was in a good mental state, Le Bret said.

"He expressed his wish to return to France and to be reunited with his family on the Island of Reunion," a French overseas territory, Le Bret added.

Wearing jeans and a light blue shirt, Collomp looked extremely tired as he emerged from the police station in Kaduna and was handed over to French embassy officials.

News of his freedom came amid an emotional roller-coaster in France in the last three weeks over foreign hostages.

The nation rejoiced in late October when four ex-hostages flew home from Niger after more than three years in captivity, but within less than a week was in mourning for two radio journalists abducted and killed by extremist rebels in Mali.

Then last week a Roman Catholic priest, 42-year-old Georges Vandenbeusch, was kidnapped in northern Cameroon and reportedly taken by Islamist militants to Nigeria.

France now has seven hostages officially being held abroad, including the priest, four journalists in Syria and two people taken in Mali.

In a statement on Collomp's release, Hollande thanked Nigerian authorities for their "decisive action" in the case.

A French source close to the case said Collomp had escaped during a Nigerian army operation against extremist militants, but Adeleye did not confirm this.

Hollande later said he was "proud" of Collomp and the "exceptional courage" he had shown in seizing the moment of his escape.

Collomp was kidnapped by about 30 armed men who attacked the residence of French firm Vergnet, the company for which he is working, in the state of Katsina on the border with Niger.

The kidnapping, which left two bodyguards and a bystander dead, was claimed by Ansaru, which has links to Boko Haram.

Family's 'great relief'

"I was speechless, it still does not feel real," Collomp's wife Anne-Marie told journalists outside her home in Reunion after learning of his release.

"The sadness is finally over with, I'm happy, but I'm also thinking of those who are still being held hostage," she said.

Friends and family later converged on her home, where an impromptu party broke out and Anne-Marie danced with a picture of her husband in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other.

Reached by telephone at his home near the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence, Collomp's brother Denis also said his release was a "great relief" for his family.

Ansaru in late September released a video of Collomp reading a statement, in which he could be heard calling for his "safe release".



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