A French engineer abducted by Islamist militants in Nigeria and held for 11 months arrived back in France yesterday after managing to escape his kidnappers.
A plane carrying the “weakened” 63-year-old Francis Collomp, accompanied by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, landed early yesterday at a military airport outside Paris.
He emerged from the plane looking extremely tired, his face drawn, and was met by relatives and the French prime minister.
Collomp was taken by Islamist militants on Dec. 19 last year, in the state of Katsina in northern Nigeria.
The circumstances of his escape remain uncertain. Nigerian police said he had escaped in the northern city of Zaria on Saturday while his captors were praying.
“He watched his captors’ prayer time. They always prayed for 15 minutes. And yesterday they did not lock the door to his cell,” said Femi Adenaike Adeleye, the police commissioner in the regional capital of Kaduna. “While they were at prayer he sneaked out and began to run.”
However, a source with knowledge of the case said he had taken advantage of a Nigerian military operation to sneak out of his unlocked cell.
Collomp stopped a motorcycle taxi and had it take him to the nearest police station, from where he was brought to Kaduna.
Adeleye said Collomp had been held in the city of Kano after his abduction and about two months ago brought to Zaria.
Didier Le Bret, the head of the French foreign ministry’s crisis center, earlier said Collomp was “weakened,” but in good enough health to travel.
Collomp “lost 30kg” during his ordeal, but was in a good mental state, Le Bret said.
News of his freedom came amid an emotional roller-coaster in France in the past three weeks over foreign hostages.
The nation rejoiced late last month when four ex-hostages flew home from Niger after more than three years in captivity, but within less than a week was in mourning for two radio journalists abducted and killed by extremist rebels in Mali.
Then last week a Roman Catholic priest, 42-year-old Georges Vandenbeusch, was kidnapped in northern Cameroon and reportedly taken by Islamist militants to Nigeria.
France now has seven hostages officially being held abroad, including the priest, four journalists in Syria and two people taken in Mali.
In a statement on Collomp’s release, French President Francois Hollande thanked Nigerian authorities for their “decisive action” in the case.
Hollande later said he was “proud” of Collomp and the “exceptional courage” he had shown in seizing the moment of his escape.
Collomp was kidnapped by about 30 armed men who attacked the residence of French firm Vergnet, the company for which he was working, in the state of Katsina on the border with Niger.
The kidnapping, which left two bodyguards and a bystander dead, was claimed by Nigerian radical Islamist group Ansaru, which has links to the extremist group Boko Haram.