Ransom rumours after French Syrian hostages go free
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Sunday 20 April 2014
Four French journalists held hostage by Islamist militants in Syria for 10 months were tearfully reunited with their families at a military airport near Paris today.
The four, seized last June while covering the Syrian civil-war, were dumped at the Turkish border on Saturday after lengthy negotiations by the French intelligence service.
French officials denied that any ransom had been paid but admitted that other, unspecified “conditions” had been met. The French media said that there was little doubt that money had exchanged hands, despite repeated statements by President Fran çois Hollande that Paris no longer paid ransoms for citizens held abroad.
Welcoming the four journalists in person at the Villacoublay air force base just south of Paris today, Mr Hollande said: “France is proud to have such valuable citizens who serve press freedom and France is proud to have obtained their freedom.”
Didier Fran çois, 53, a celebrated globe-trotting radio reporter, had earlier told his employer, Europe 1, that the quartet had spent six weeks chained together and ten months held in windowless basements.
“It is a great joy to be free, to see the sky, to be able to walk,” he said on arrival at Villacoublay. He went on to pay tribute to the “mobilisation and generosity of the French for for their journalists, for all citizens (held) abroad”.
“We are really lucky to be French,” he said.
Nicolas H énin, 37, a reporter for Arte the Franco-German TV channel, tearfully held his two small children.
“What's the best thing for a father?” he said. “To have your two kids in your arms.”
The two other released journalists were Pierret Torres, 29, who was also working for Arte, and Edouard Elias, 22, a photographer who was working for the website of Europe 1.
All had been held since last June said by a rebel group linked to Al-Qaida called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
This group has increasingly been fighting against other more secular rebel movements rather than the regime of Bachar al-Assad, French officials said. It has been losing ground and is now mostly confined to eastern Syria.
The French external intelligence sevice, the DGSE, has been in contact with the rebels since the journalists were seized, French media said. It became clear that the rebels were ready to make a deal after Spanish journalists and aid workers were released last month.
The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Dian, made a secret trip to Ankara to enlist the help of the Turkish authorities. St éphan Le Fole, the government spokesman, said no money had exchanged hands.
The newspaper Le Parisien reported today however: “According to our information, the DGSE negotiated directly with the rebel group…T here can be little doubt that some payment was made.”
Previous French governments are known to have paid directly or indirectly for hostages, provoking criticism by the United States. President Hollande has repeatedly said that such payment would no longer be made.
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