PARIS (AP) — Four French journalists kidnapped and held for 10 months in Syria returned home Sunday to joyful families, a presidential welcome and questions about how France managed to obtain their freedom from Islamic extremists.
Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres were freed Saturday by their kidnappers at the Turkish border. They were captured in two separate incidents last June. Francois recounted details of the captivity on Europe 1 radio, saying there were periods of "total isolation," numerous transfers to new locations and, sometimes, chains to guard against escape.
The four were kidnapped in two separate incidents last June, and it was unclear how much time they spent together. Since his capture, Francois said he felt like he had been living in a "black hole ... in basements without seeing daylight, including a month and a half chained one to another."
"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, 53, a noted war reporter for Europe 1. Elias, 23, a freelance photographer, also was working for Europe 1 radio. Henin, 37, and Torres, 29, are freelance journalists.
At an emotional welcome ceremony at Villacoublay military airport outside Paris, President Francois Hollande saluted their return as "a moment of joy" for their families and France. Hollande praised Turkish authorities for helping in the journalists' return, but didn't elaborate. It was unclear whether Turkey played a role in the negotiations to obtain the journalists' freedom. The four were released at the Turkish-Syrian border and found by Turkish police.
Hollande insisted that France honored its policy of not paying ransoms. "It's a very important principle so that hostage-takers are not tempted to capture others," Hollande told Europe 1. He stressed the role of negotiations and intelligence work — as he has in the past when hostages were freed, notably in Mali, where two French remain in captivity.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, in response to a question, told Europe 1 that no weapons were delivered to the Islamic radicals holding the four. "There was no question of contact with the Syrian government" of Bashar Assad, Fabius said. France and other Western nations blame Assad for Syria's civil war and want him removed from power.
"So it was of another nature," he said, suggesting some bargain was struck. The journalists' captors haven't been formally identified, although the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, among the most radical of the Islamic groups operating in Syria, are suspected. A Syrian who served as translator and guide for two of the journalists said that breakaway al-Qaida group surely captured them in the eastern province of Raqqa.
Hussam al-Ahmad, 23, told The Associated Press that Henin and Torres aroused the fighters' suspicion after they entered a school and asked to take pictures of the fighters as they played soccer. The journalists were seized four days after an initial interrogation, al-Ahmad said.
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. Henin, his young child in his arms, said in brief remarks earlier to France 24 TV station that he was held in "about 10 places of captivity, prisons, mostly with other people."
Just before being freed, Henin said the group was offered extra food, but hardly given time to eat. "Minutes later, they said, 'Let's go. To the border.'" Fabius denied a Turkish media report that the freed hostages were left blindfolded and handcuffed at the border. He said French authorities had known for two weeks that "things were nearing."
Syria is considered the world's most dangerous assignment for journalists. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in April that 61 journalists were kidnapped in Syria in 2013, while more than 60 have been killed since the conflict began in 2011.
The widespread abductions of journalists is unprecedented and has been largely unreported by news organizations in the hope that may help negotiations on freeing the captives. Jihadi groups against the Syrian government are believed to be behind most recent kidnappings.
Catherine Gaschka in Paris contributed to this report.