French journalists arrive home after Syria hostage ordeal

PARIS - Four French journalists taken hostage in Syria arrived home on Sunday to an emotional reunion with family and colleagues after spending 10 months in captivity in the world's most dangerous country for the media.

Looking thin and tired but overjoyed, the men hugged relatives and colleagues waiting at an air base southwest of Paris where they landed early Sunday after flying in from Turkey.

"It was a long haul, but we never lost hope," said radio reporter Didier Francois, at 53 the eldest of the four, at the Villacoublay base where they were due to undergo medical checks.

"From time to time, we got snatches of information, we knew that the world was mobilised," said Francois, an experienced and highly respected war reporter for Europe 1 radio.

Francois said the conditions of their captivity had been "tough". We "stayed 10 whole months in basements without ever seeing daylight, all of us chained together," he said.

"In a country at war things are not always simple, when it comes to food, water, electricity, sometimes things were a bit hairy, the fighting was close by." President Francois Hollande said it was "a day of joy for France" as he met the four men at Villacoublay.

Francois and photographer Edouard Elias, 23, were taken north of the main northern Syrian city of Aleppo on June 6.

Nicolas Henin, a 37-year-old reporter for Le Point magazine, and freelance photographer Pierre Torres, 29, were seized two weeks later also in the north of the country, at Raqqa.

They were held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the most radical of Syria's jihadist groups, and the precise conditions of their release remain unclear.

Hollande reiterated that France "does not pay ransoms" for hostages, and said "all is done through negotiation and discussion".

Turkish soldiers found the men abandoned in no-man's land on the border with Syria overnight Friday to Saturday, wearing blindfolds and with their hands bound.

The Turkish soldiers initially thought they were smugglers, but took them to a police station in the small town of Akcakle near the border when they realised they were speaking French.

Hollande said France was "proud" to have secured their release, but cautioned that "there are still hostages being held in Syria because they are journalists." Around 30 foreign journalists covering the Syrian civil war have been seized since the conflict began in March 2011, and many are still missing.

Captors 'spoke French'

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that some of the men's captors spoke French.

"French, Belgians, Italians, Europeans in general have gone there for jihad," he told journalists.

Thanking the French diplomats and secret services who worked to secure the hostages' release, Francois said he was moved by the "degree of mobilisation, this outburst of solidarity, this generosity that the French people have when it comes to their media, their hostages, their fellow citizens abroad." Asked whether they were treated well Henin, his two children in his arms and his voice cracking with emotion, replied: "Not always. It wasn't always easy." The reporter said earlier he had managed to escape once, but was recaptured.

"I took the biggest risk three days after my kidnapping, because I escaped. I spent a night in freedom running through the Syrian countryside before my kidnappers caught up with me," Henin told France 24 television.

Recounting the last hours before he was freed, Henin said: "Usually we were not very well fed. But the guards came to our cell and brought us a meal that was better than the usual, and even asked if we wanted to eat more, which never happens.

"So we thought: something's going on. And quite rightly, as we hardly had any time to eat before they came in the next minute to say 'let's go, we're going to the border'", he recalled.

'Immense joy'

The ex-hostages return to an outpouring of joy, with the head of Europe 1 Denis Olivennes describing emotional scenes in the office.

"It is an immense joy, we are in tears," he said. "We have endured 10 months of terrible anxiety and anguish. Now they are freed, I have no words to describe how it feels." There had been some indication that a release was possible in recent days.

"We were told a few days ago that they had a window of opportunity, but we have learned not to get our hopes up," said Fabien Namias, chief executive of Europe 1.

The four men's liberation comes weeks after two Spanish journalists taken hostage in Syria in September by ISIL also walked free.

Among those still being held in Syria are US journalist James Foley, who had been working for Global Post, Agence France-Presse and other international media and went missing in November 2012, and Austin Tice, who disappeared in August the same year.

The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a report Wednesday that Syria was the most dangerous country for journalists, highlighting the rising number of "targeted killings" of reporters.