Four French journalists taken hostage in Syria arrived in France yesterday, a day after they were freed from 10 months in captivity in the world’s most dangerous country for the media.
A plane carrying Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres from Turkey touched down at a military base in northern France early yesterday, the French president’s office said.
They were then taken by helicopter to the Villacoublay air base southwest of Paris, where they met French President Francois Hollande and their families and colleagues, before undergoing medical checks.
Hollande saluted their return as “a moment of joy”’ for France.
“This is a day of great joy for them as you can imagine, for their families ... but it is a day of great joy for France,” he said.
Hollande saluted Turkish authorities for helping in the journalists’ return, but did not elaborate.
“It’s such a delight and a relief to be free, to see the sky ... to breath the fresh air, to walk, to talk to you,” said Francois, a noted war reporter for Europe 1.
Later, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that “France does not pay ransom’’ for hostages in an interview with Europe 1 radio. He also said no weapons were delivered to the Islamic radicals holding the four.
“There was no question of contact with the Syrian government”’ of President Bashir al-Assad, Fabius said.
“So it was of another nature,” he said, suggesting some bargain was struck.
Francois said the captivity “was long, but we never doubted’’ in an eventual liberation. He said journalists need to go to Syria — the world’s most dangerous conflict for them — because someone must describe the civil war there to the world.
“Our families suffered”’ for this choice, he said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Turkish soldiers found the four abandoned in no-man’s land on the border with Syria overnight on Friday to Saturday, wearing blindfolds and with their hands bound.
They had been captured in two separate incidents in June last year while covering the conflict in Syria.
A photograph taken before they left Turkey showed the four men smiling and clean-shaven, after they appeared on Turkish television with long beards from their 10 months in captivity.
The Turkish soldiers initially thought the men were smugglers, but took them to a police station in the small town of Akcakle near the border when they realized they were speaking French.
About 30 foreign journalists covering the Syrian civil war have been seized since the conflict began in March 2011 and many are still missing.
Francois, a highly respected and experienced war reporter for Europe 1 radio and photographer Elias, 23, were taken north of the main northern Syrian city of Aleppo on June 6 last year. Henin, a 37-year-old reporter for Le Point magazine, and freelance photographer Torres, 29, were seized two weeks later also in the north of the country, at Raqqa.
“FREE!!!” Henin wrote on Facebook. “A huge thank you to everyone. I am very moved by your messages. Can’t wait to see you again. I am ecstatic to be able to rejoin my wonderful family.”
The reporter said 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.