Four French hostages kidnapped by al-Qaeda’s north African arm three years ago in Niger have been released, President François Hollande said on Tuesday.
Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dol and Marc Feret 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 immediately clear, but, speaking to French television, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius denied that the government had paid a ransom.
“[It has been] three years of suffering for these citizens who have been held by jailers without scruples and three years of suffering for the families who have lived hell and today are relieved,” Hollande told a news conference during a visit to Slovakia.
The men were expected to travel back to France early on Wednesday.
“The President told us they are in good health,” Rene Robert, grandfather of Legrand, said on i-tele. “I never doubted Pierre could hold on, but we didn’t know how long things would last, and it is true that at some point he could have worn out.”
There was no news about the fate of three Swedish, Dutch and South African men who were also held by AQIM.
The men’s release gave 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 the government’s immigration policy.
Hollande thanked the president of Niger, whom he said obtained the release of the four French hostages. France’s foreign and defence ministers welcomed them at Niamey airport, where Niger authorities had brought them.
A Reuters reporter at the airport said the hostages 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 neighbor 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.
Hollande has said Paris has ended a policy of paying ransoms for hostages, but suspicion that it still does despite official denials has been a source of tension with the United States.
France brushed off an allegation by a former U.S. diplomat that it paid a $17-million ransom in vain for the release of the three hostages abducted in 2010 from Niger.
Hollande told the family of the Sahel hostages in January that the new policy also meant that he had told companies and insurance firms to not pay ransoms.
Seven other French nationals are still being held hostage, including three in the Sahel region and four in Syria.
Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi.