Four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaeda militants have landed in France after three years in captivity in the punishing African Sahel desert region.
The wife and daughters of one hostage, Daniel Larribe, rushed to hug him, and they held each other while crying.
President François Hollande greeted each of the hostages yesterday on the tarmac at a military airport outside Paris.
Reputable media reports, citing unnamed sources, that a €20 million (£17m) ransom had been paid by France’s external intelligence service overshadowed the homecoming, but the government said Mr Hollande has banned paying hostage-takers.
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 finally 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. The area is prowled by militants from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and various criminal gangs.
Foreign minister Laurent Fabius and defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian 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.
Françoise Larribe yesterday told reporters how her husband Daniel survived the detention. Françoise herself was 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.”
Amid the joy of the homecoming, Mr Hollande recalled that there are 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 told reporters from the tarmac.
None of the men wanted to speak, and some appeared visibly uncomfortable by the intense media attention, hanging their heads and shifting from foot to foot behind the president as he spoke.
The global intelligence company Stratfor estimates that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has carried out at least 18 kidnappings since 2003, raising an estimated $89m (£59m) in ransom payments.
There are questions about how the hostages were taken from Arlit, despite substantial security. Alain Legrand said that while he was thrilled at the release of his son, Pierre, he would be looking for explanations.
“My son is 28. He’s spent more than one of every ten days of his life in captivity. I would like someone to explain to me why,” he told French television.
Niger’s president, Mohamadou Issoufou, said they had been retrieved from a remote area of northern Mali after Niger officials made contact with the kidnappers a few months ago.
“We always remained confident because we had regular contacts,” Mr Issoufou told Le Figaro newspaper.
Sources said negotiations with the hostage-takers were led by Mohamed Akotey, a Tuareg who joined Areva’s staff after the end of a rebellion by the Niger Movement for Justice.