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French hostages ‘freed’ in Niger after three years

Four French hostages held captive by Islamist militants in Niger since 2010 have been released, French president François Hollande announced on Tuesday.

French hostages 'freed' in Niger after three years
Crowds gather in Paris in June 2013 to mark the 1000th day in captivity of four French hostages in Niger. The four have been released, president François Hollande said on Tuesday. Photo: Dufour

Four French hostages kidnapped by Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Niger have been released after more than three years in captivity.

The exact circumstances of their release were not immediately clear, but French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said there had been "no assault" to free the hostages and that no ransom had been paid.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told AFP the hostages had been freed in Mali and were in "very good shape".

"They have been hostages for three years and the nightmare is finally over," Fabius said.

The four men, who were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Niger in 2010, arrived at the airport in the capital Niamey on Tuesday, where they were greeted by the French foreign and defence ministers and by Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou.

They appeared thin but otherwise in good health, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

In a brief remark to AFP at the airport one of the hostages, Thierry Dol, 32, said: "It was very difficult but it was the test of a lifetime."

French President Francois Hollande had hours earlier announced their release during a visit to Slovakia's capital Bratislava.

"I have some good news. I just learned from Niger's president that our four hostages in the Sahel, the Arlit hostages, have been released," Hollande said.

Frenchmen Dol, Daniel Larribe, Pierre Legrand and Marc Feret were kidnapped on September 16th, 2010, from a uranium compound in Arlit, north-central Niger.

Hollande spoke of "three years of trials for the kidnapped men, who were held by unscrupulous captors", and of "three years of suffering for the families who lived through a nightmare and are now relieved."

"I want to express my gratitude to Niger's president, who was able to obtain the release of our countrymen."

Speaking as he met the ex-hostages, Issoufou said Niger had worked for their release, but provided few details.

"Since the kidnapping of the hostages three years ago, Niger has worked on obtaining their release. Now it's done," he said, congratulating the hostages for "regaining their freedom after months of difficult trials."

The four were to return to France on Wednesday.

"It's like feeling something that we've never felt. Now we're waiting for them to physically return, to see them, to touch them," Legrand's mother, Pascale Robert, told BFMTV.

His aunt, Brigitte Laur, told AFP the news was unbelievable.

"We waited for so long," she said, her voice breaking. "After three years it's hard to believe."

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HOSTAGES

Hostages safe in Paris armed robbery

Several people taken hostage Friday evening in a Paris travel agency were released safe and sound, police said, but the armed robber who seized them was on the run.

Hostages safe in Paris armed robbery
Photo: AFP

“Armed robbery on Massena Boulevard in Paris: operation over,” police tweeted. “Six people have left. The thief is not on the premises.”

Other police sources said seven hostages had been “found safe and sound “after the hold-up at the travel agency in the Chinatown area of southern Paris' 13th arrondissement.

The incident sparked a major police operation in the French capital, where security jitters remain high after a string of terrorist attacks over the last two years, including the November 2015 Paris attacks which left 132 people dead.

Police set up a security perimeter around the Asieland travel agency, which specialises in Asian travel.

Drivers were warned to stay away from the area. Police sources told AFP earlier that the robber was armed with a handgun.

The agency sits in Paris' 13th arrondissement, a residential area that is packed with Asian restaurants and is home to a large Chinese community.

The ground-floor offices sit at the base of a large residential tower block and next to one of Paris' main tram lines.

The robber had attacked the company at around 6:30 pm (1730 GMT), trapping several people inside.

The hostages were let out around two and a half hours later, “their hands on their heads”, a police source said, adding that they were “taken into the care of emergency services in a neighbouring building”.

Police then searched the building and realised the attacker had fled the scene.

“We saw four or five people coming out with their hands on their heads, followed by around 15 officers,” local resident Zinedine told AFP.

“There was no shooting, we heard no explosion. It's over,” said the 55-year-old, who had left home to buy cigarettes.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo thanked police for their “speed and professionalism” on Twitter, adding: “I offer all my support to the staff and customers of the agency that were confronted with this criminal act.”

The capital is under tight security, with troops patrolling the streets daily, under a state of emergency imposed by President Francois Hollande after last year's Paris attacks.

The hold-up in Chinatown comes at a time of heightened safety concerns among Paris' large Chinese community following a fatal attack on a tailor in August and a series of muggings.

More than 10,000 Chinese Parisians staged a protest march in September calling for increased security for the community following the killing of Zhang Chaolin, beaten to death during a robbery.

Photo: GoogleMaps