Four French journalists kidnapped and held for ten months in Syria returned home yesterday to joyful families, a presidential welcome and questions about how France managed to obtain their freedom from Islamic extremists.
Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres were freed by their kidnappers at the Turkish border. They were captured in two separate incidents last June.
Mr Francois said there were periods of “total isolation”, numerous transfers to new locations and, sometimes, chains to guard against escape.
Since his capture, Mr Francois said he felt like he had been living in a “black hole … in basements without seeing daylight, including a month and a half chained one to another”.
“It’s such a delight and a relief to be free, to see the sky … to breath the fresh air, to walk, to talk to you,” Mr Francois, 53, a noted war reporter for Europe 1 radio, said.
Mr Elias, 23, a freelance photographer, also was working for Europe 1 radio. Mr Henin, 37, and Mr Torres, 29, are freelance journalists.
At an emotional welcome ceremony at Villacoublay military airport outside Paris, President Francois Hollande saluted their return as “a moment of joy” for their families and France.
Mr Hollande praised Turkish authorities for helping in the journalists’ return, but did not elaborate. It was unclear whether Turkey played a role in the negotiations to obtain the journalists’ freedom. The four were released at the Turkish-Syrian border and found by Turkish police.
Mr Hollande insisted that France had honoured its policy of not paying ransoms.
“It’s a very important principle so that hostage-takers are not tempted to capture others,” Mr Hollande told Europe 1. He stressed the role of negotiations and intelligence work – as he has in the past when hostages were freed, notably in Mali, where two French citizens remain in captivity.
Foreign minister Laurent Fabius said no weapons were delivered to the Islamic radicals holding the four.
“There was no question of contact with the Syrian government” Mr Fabius said. France and other Western nations blame Basshar al-Assad for Syria’s civil war and want him removed from power.
The journalists’ captors have not been formally identified, although the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, among the most radical of the Islamic groups operating in Syria, are suspected. A Syrian who served as translator and guide for two of the journalists said that breakaway al-Qaeda group is likely to have captured them in the eastern province of Raqqa.
Hussam al-Ahmad, 23, said that Mr Henin and Mr Torres aroused the fighters’ suspicion after they entered a school and asked to take pictures of the fighters as they played soccer. The journalists were seized four days after an initial interrogation, Mr al-Ahmad said.
Mr Francois said the captivity “was long but we never doubted” in an eventual liberation. Mr Henin, his young child in his arms, said in brief remarks earlier to France 24 TV station that he was held in “about ten places of captivity, prisons, mostly with other people”.
Just before being freed, Mr Henin said the group was offered extra food. “Minutes later, they said, ‘Let’s go. To the border.”’
Mr Fabius denied a Turkish media report that the freed hostages were left blindfolded and handcuffed at the border. He said French authorities had known for two weeks that “things were nearing”.
Syria is considered the world’s most dangerous assignment for journalists. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in April that 61 journalists were kidnapped in Syria in 2013.