France Welcomes Hostages Home After Three-Year Wait

Government forces patrol the northern desert region of Niger, where the four men were kidnapped. Photo:   Magharebia for flickr.

Government forces patrol the northern desert region of Niger, where the four men were kidnapped. Photo: Magharebia for flickr.

Four French citizens, held hostage in North Africa by Al-Qaeda for three years, returned to their families in an emotional reunion in Paris on Wednesday.

President François Hollande greeted the four men — all of them bearded, careworn, and nervous, but otherwise not visibly harmed — on the tarmac. Long-separated friends and families tearfully embraced and posed for photographs.

The four — Thierry Dol, Pierre Legrand, Marc Féret, and Daniel Larribe — had been kidnapped in Arlit, Niger. They had been working for the French state-owned nuclear energy company Areva, which operates a uranium mine in Arlit. They were recovered in northern Mali, which until recently had been a stronghold for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Hollande and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had personally informed the hostages’ families that their loved ones would be returned safely. Françoise Larribe, wife of hostage Daniel Larribe, called the moment when President Hollande rang her “surreal.”

“I was leaving the hospital, and I didn’t know if I was under anesthesia or not!” Larribe recounted. She went on to thank all parties involved in her husband’s rescue, especially the French and Nigerien authorities and Areva.

Larribe understands her husband’s ordeal. She was herself kidnapped by AQIM at the same time, before being released in February 2011 due to poor health. She and her two adult daughters greeted Daniel on the tarmac, overjoyed that, at long last, the whole family was safe.

The circumstances of the hostages’ liberation remain unclear. While France has paid ransoms before, earlier in 2013 Hollande announced that the French government would no longer exchange money with terrorists. Kidnapping has been a lucrative activity for AQIM, which has collected an estimated $89 million in ransom since 2003.

Pascal Lupart, head of an agency representing the hostages and their families, said he had been told that Areva itself paid AQIM an undisclosed ransom in exchange for its employees’ freedom. Areva press officer Julien Duperray, however, has denied that the company paid the terrorists.

Questions also remain about how Areva, which employs substantial security services at its mines, failed to protect the four men. Alain Legrand, whose son Pierre was only 25 at the time of the kidnapping, said that while he was overjoyed at his son’s safe return, he wanted an explanation.

“My son … has spent more than one of every 10 days of his life in captivity. I would like someone to explain to me why,” he told TV reporters.

The joy of the reunion remains dampened by the knowledge that at least seven French citizens remain in captivity overseas– three in Africa and four in Syria.

The hostages were held in perilous conditions in the arid Sahel of northern Mali. Dol, 32, said in a video made during his captivity that he needed medication for his heart condition. Another French citizen, Philippe Verdon, was executed in May in retaliation for the French military campaign against AQIM in Mali.

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  1. […] Four French citizens, held hostage in North Africa by Al-Qaeda for three years, returned to their families in an emotional reunion in Paris on Wednesday. President François Hollande greeted the four men — all of them bearded, careworn, and nervous, but otherwise not visibly harmed — on the tarmac. Long-separated friends and families tearfully embraced and posed for photographs. The four — Thierry Dol, Pierre Legrand, Marc Féret, and Daniel Larribe — had been kidnapped… […]

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