NIAMEY, Niger - Four Frenchmen kidnapped by Al-Qaeda militants in Niger were expected back in France Wednesday to an emotional welcome after more than three years in a "nightmare" captivity.
The exact circumstances of their release were not immediately clear. But the French government said there had been no military assault to free them and that no ransom had been paid, while President Francois Hollande credited decisive help from his Niger counterpart.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told AFP the hostages had been freed in neighbouring Mali, and were in "very good shape".
"They have been hostages for three years and the nightmare is finally over," he said.
Hollande was to meet the quartet on their arrival at an airport outside Paris after what he called "three years of suffering for the families who lived through a nightmare".
"I want to express my gratitude to Niger's president, who was able to obtain the release of our countrymen," Hollande added.
The four men, who were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Niger in 2010, arrived at the airport in Niger's capital Niamey on Tuesday. 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, freed hostage Thierry Dol, 32, said: "It was very difficult but it was the test of a lifetime."