“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 on a visit to Bratislava.
Frenchmen Thierry Dol, Daniel Larribe, Pierre Legrand and Marc Feret were working for French nuclear giant Areva when they were kidnapped on September 16, 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.”
A source close to Hollande said the former hostages were in satisfactory health.
“We can’t say that they’re in great health but their health is fine,” the source said.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian were in Niger’s capital Niamey to recover the ex-hostages, the foreign ministry said.
Foreign ministry sources said the four had arrived at the airport in Niamey and would be returning to France on Wednesday.
Legrand’s aunt, Brigitte Laur, told AFP the news was unbelievable after so long.
“I’m happy, excited,” said Laur, whose 28-year-old nephew is the youngest of the hostages.
“We waited for so long,” she said, her voice breaking. “After three years it’s hard to believe.”
The news of their release came days after regional security sources in the Malian town of Gao reported the presence of envoys in the Sahel “to speed up negotiations towards freeing the French hostages”.
France however had “officially denied” sending envoys.
AQIM had demanded at least 90 million euros ($124 million) for the release of the remaining hostages.
At least seven French hostages remain in captivity around the world, including two taken in Mali, one in Nigeria and four in Syria.
AQIM released a video in September purporting to show seven kidnapped Westerners, including the four Frenchmen, in footage that France’s foreign ministry deemed credible.
The video included statements from the four, as well as from a Dutchman, a Swede and a South African who were abducted from Timbuktu in northern Mali in November 2011.
The fates of the other foreign hostages were not clear.
AQIM grew out of a movement launched in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists who sought the overthrow of the Algerian government to be replaced with Islamic rule.
The organisation linked to Al-Qaeda in 2006 and has spun a tight network across tribes, clans, family and business lines that stretches across the vast Sahel region abutting the southern Sahara desert.
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