PARIS: Four French journalists taken hostage in Syria arrived in France early Sunday, 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 Sunday, the president’s office said. They were then taken by helicopter to the Villacoublay air base southwest of Paris, where they will be met by President Francois Hollande and their families and colleagues, before undergoing medical checks.
Hollande said on Saturday they were “in good health despite the very challenging conditions of their captivity”.
Turkish soldiers found them abandoned in no-man’s land on the border with Syria overnight 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 photo 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.
“I’m very happy to be free,” said 53-year-old Francois before leaving Turkey.
“We thank the Turkish authorities because they really helped us. And it’s very nice to see the sky, to be able to walk and to be able to speak freely.”
The Turkish soldiers initially took the men for smugglers but took them to a police station in the small town of Akcakle near the border when they realised they were speaking French. Around 30 foreign journalists covering the Syrian civil war have been seized since the conflict began in March 2011, and many are still missing.
Hollande told AFP he had learnt of the liberation of the four Frenchmen “with immense relief”. “I share the joy of the families of our compatriots who have endured... the fear of this trying time,” Hollande said.
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.
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 his Facebook page. “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. Describing the captors as “a group that claims to be a jihadist movement”, the journalist said he was transferred to about a dozen different sites during the months spent in captivity.
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.
The ex-hostages return to an outpouring of joy and relief from family and colleagues.
“We don’t know what to say, we are very happy obviously, but we are completely overwhelmed,” Elias’s grandmother Josette Dunand told AFP.
The head of Europe 1 Denis Olivennes described 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.
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