Florence Aubenas, 44, who was released together with her driver Hussein Hanun al-Saadi on Saturday, flew to Cyprus on Sunday where she was met by French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy before boarding a government plane to take her to France.

 

She left Cyprus at 1255 GMT and arrived in Villacoublay airport outside Paris. Her driver stayed in Iraq.

 

"She looked fine. Very happy to be free and was a bit emotional," Christodoulos Pashiardis, under-secretary to Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos, said.

 

"Florence Aubenas and Hussein Hanun have been released. They are in good health," Jacques Chirac said earlier in a televised speech.

 

Snatched in January

 

The reporter of French daily Liberation was captured with her driver after leaving their Baghdad hotel on 5 January.

 

Little had been known about their fate since then, or the circumstances surrounding their release.

 

Driver al-Saadi was reunited with
his family in Baghdad on Sunday

"It wasn't easy at all. It was a dangerous operation for our people, extremely dangerous," Bernard Bajolet told France Info radio, saying Aubenas had seemed thin but full of life.

 

Fighters in Iraq released video footage of Aubenas on 1 March. Looking distraught and fragile, she appealed for help.

 

A Romanian reporter, who was held hostage in Iraq for 55 days before being released last month, said for the first time on Sunday that Aubenas had been held in the same cell with her.

"Our mattresses were next to each other," Romanian journalist Marie Jeanne Ion told private television Antena 1.

 

"She was telling me all the time 'of course we won't die, of course we'll get out, they won't kill us'. If she wasn't there, we would have gone crazy," Ion said, her voice trembling.

 

Denial

 

But asked whether she was held with the Romanians at one point, Aubenas responded "no" and did not elaborate.

 

Liberation's editorial director Antoine de Gaudemar said he could not explain the discrepancy.

 

Officials "will have to put all the elements together and examine them," he said.

 

Aubenas is expected to shed more light on her ordeal in Iraq at a news conference on Tuesday.

 

In tears

 

Ion and two other Romanian journalists were kidnapped in Baghdad on 28 March. They were freed on 22 May, but held back from talking about the circumstances in which they were held for fear this could endanger others' lives.

The freed Romanians celebrate
with President Traian Basescu (C)

Colleagues at Liberation newspaper burst into tears when they heard the news of the reporter's release.

 

Aubenas's mother said Chirac had informed her about her daughter's release on Saturday.

 

"I thought I knew what the word happiness meant ... but it is so much better than I thought," Jacqueline Aubenas said. "It's a real explosion."

 

French officials drove al-Saadi to his home in central Baghdad, where relatives and neighbours crowded round and slaughtered a sheep in the street as a mark of thanksgiving, witnesses said.

 

Al-Saadi, looking drawn and thin, stayed silent. His wife wept as his daughter hugged the father she had not seen for months.

 

Ransom talk

 

France, which opposed the US-led war in Iraq, secured the release of two French journalists in December after they were held hostage for four months by Iraqi fighters.

 

"I thought I knew what the word happiness meant ... but it is so much better than
I thought"


Jacqueline Aubenas,
mother of Florence Aubenas

France said then the captors had never asked for a ransom.

It was not clear under what circumstances Aubenas and her driver were freed.

 

The head of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said on Saturday their kidnappers could have asked for a ransom, but he later withdrew his comments.

 

France's Foreign Ministry had said the remarks "did in no way correspond to reality".

 

About 150 foreigners have been seized in Iraq over the past two years. Many more Iraqis have been abducted.

 

The release of the French hostage came as positive news for Chirac, who suffered a humiliating defeat when French voters rejected the European Union constitution on 29 May.