Four Frenchmen held hostage in the Sahara desert by al-Qaeda fighters have flown home to France and been reunited with their families after three years of captivity.
In a very public event, French President Francois Hollande greeted the hostages in front of the media on the tarmac of a military airport outside Paris on Wednesday.
The men, freed on Tuesday, were kidnapped in Niger in 2010 while working for the French state-controlled nuclear giant Areva and a subsidiary of construction group Vinci.
At the time of their capture, the four, Pierre Legrand, Thierry Dol, Marc Feret and Daniel Larribe were working in Arlit, Niger, where Areva operates a uranium mine.
The former hostages spent their first night of freedom in the Niger capital, Niamey, and left for Paris early on Wednesday morning. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian flew to Niger to pick them up.
Fabius joked that some of the men slept on the floor of their rooms, finding the mattresses too soft after their time in captivity.
The men were visibly uncomfortable by the intense media attention, hanging their heads and shifting from foot to foot behind the president as he spoke.
The men’s release could benefit Hollande politically, a day after a poll showed he had become the most unpopular French president on record, dogged by repeated rows over taxes, immigration and unemployment.
Amid the joy of the homecoming, Hollande recalled that there are still seven French citizens being held hostage, three in Africa and four in Syria.
Also hanging over the homecoming were questions about why the men were taken captive in the first place and whether a ransom was paid to secure their release.
Hollande has said Paris has ended a policy of ransoming hostages, but suspicion that it still pays out has been a source of tension with the United States.
Pascal Lupart who, as head of an association representing friends and families of the hostages, is in touch with those investigating the case said he was told that Areva paid a ransom for the captives. He did not know the amount, however.
The global intelligence company Stratfor estimates that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has carried out at least 18 kidnappings since 2003, raising an estimated $89m in ransom payments.
The money has allowed the group to buy food, fuel, weapons and favour among local populations in remote zones of Mali’s north, Western and regional security officials say.