PARIS // Four Frenchmen held hostage by Al Qaeda militants landed in France yesterday after three years in captivity in the African Sahel.
The wife and daughters of one hostage, Daniel Larribe, rushed to hug him and the three held each other and cried. Other friends and family snapped photos of their loved ones finally home.
The president of France, Francois Hollande, greeted each of the hostages on the tarmac at a military airport outside Paris.
At the time of their capture, the four – Pierre Legrand, Thierry Dol, Marc Feret and Mr Larribe – were working in Arlit, Niger, where the French state-controlled nuclear giant, Areva, operates a uranium mine. They were retrieved in northern Mali on Tuesday.
Both countries are in the Sahel, the arid region that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea just south of the Sahara Desert that is prowled by militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The former hostages spent their first night of freedom in the Niger capital, Niamey, and left for Paris early yesterday morning.
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister, had flown to Niger to pick them up. Mr Fabius joked that some of the men slept on the floor of their rooms, finding the mattresses too soft after their ordeal.
Mr Larribe’s wife, Francoise, described how Mr Larribe had survived the detention. Mrs Larribe had been captured along with her husband and the other three, but was released more than a year ago.
“I think Daniel on his part had a desire to resist and he did it in a completely formidable way,” she said. “It’s like what we used to say to each other when we were in captivity together: every day is a victory.”
Mr Hollande said that there were still seven French citizens being held hostage, three in Africa and four in Syria.
“Today it’s joy for the four families, for our four ex-hostages, but it is still an unbearable wait for other families and for other hostages,” he said.
None of the men wanted to speak after Mr Hollande.
Also hanging over the homecoming were questions about why the men were taken captive in the first place and whether a ransom was paid to secure their release.
The global intelligence company Stratfor estimated that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had committed at least 18 kidnappings since 2003 and raised an estimated $89 million (Dh327m) in ransom payments.
Pascal Lupart, who is the head of an association that represents friends and families of the hostages, said he was told that Areva paid a ransom for the captives. He said he did not know the amount.
While analysts have said that France had previously paid ransoms to free its citizens, Mr Hollande announced earlier this year that ransoms would no longer be paid for the release of hostages.
He and several other members of the government have since reiterated that no ransom was paid in this case. Areva said yesterday that no ransom was paid.
* Associated Press