Four French hostages in Niger freed

French foreign minister denies government paid ransom for men’s release

Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou (right), greets released French hostages in Niamey yesterday.  Photograph:  Reuters

Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou (right), greets released French hostages in Niamey yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

Wed, Oct 30, 2013, 01:01

Four French hostages kidnapped by al-Qaeda’s north African arm three years ago in Niger have been released, French president François Hollande said yesterday.

Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dole and Marc Féret were kidnapped by AQIM in September 2010 while working for French nuclear group Areva and a subsidiary of construction group Vinci in Arlit in Niger.

The conditions of the release were not clear but French foreign minister Laurent Fabius denied the government had paid a ransom.

The men were expected to travel back to France today.

“The president told us they are in good health,” René Robert, grandfather of Mr Legrand, said on i-tele, a French digital channel.

There was no news on the fate of three Swedish, Dutch and South African men who were also held by AQIM.

Boost for Hollande
The men’s release gave Mr Hollande a boost just a day after a poll showed he had become the most unpopular French president on record, with the Socialist leader hit by anger over tax hikes, unemployment and rows over immigration policy.

Mr Hollande thanked the president of Niger, whom he said obtained the release of the men. France’s foreign and defence ministers welcomed them at Niamey airport, where Niger authorities had brought them. A reporter there said they were bearded, looked tired and were dressed in traditional robes worn by desert people. None of the hostages spoke.

Paris launched air strikes and sent hundreds of soldiers into Niger’s neighbour Mali at the start of the year to drive back al-Qaeda-linked rebels it said could turn the West African country into a base for international attacks.

The insurgents have threatened to hit French targets across the Sahel region in revenge and in the summer killed one French hostage they held.

Mr Hollande has said Paris has ended a policy of paying ransoms for hostages, but the suspicion that it still does so, despite official denials, has been a source of tension with the US. France brushed off an allegation by a former US diplomat that it paid a $17 million (€12.4 million) ransom in vain for the release of the three hostages.

Seven other French nationals are still being held hostage, including three in the Sahel region and four in Syria. – (Reuters)