PARIS - Four French journalists taken hostage in Syria last year were freed on Saturday after a 10-month ordeal in the world’s most dangerous country for the media.
French President Francois Hollande said Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres were ‘in good health despite the very challenging conditions of their captivity’. Turkish soldiers found the four men abandoned in no-man’s land on the border with Syria overnight Friday-Saturday, wearing blindfolds and with their hands bound, the Turkish news agency Dogan reported.
The soldiers initially took them for smugglers but took them to a police station in the small Turkish town of Akcakle near the border when they realised they were speaking French. Footage of the four journalists broadcast on Turkish television showed them looking unkempt, with beards and long hair, but they appeared to be in good health. ‘I’m very happy to be free. We just came from Syria,’ Francois was shown saying. ‘We thank the Turkish authorities because they really helped us. It’s very nice to see the sky, to be able to walk and to speak freely.’ Francois, a reporter for Europe 1 radio, and photographer Elias were taken north of Aleppo on June 6. Henin, reporter for Point magazine, and freelance photographer Torres were seized two weeks later in the north of the country, at Raqqa.
The four men are expected to arrive in France later Saturday or early Sunday. Henin’s father Pierre-Yves Henin told AFP by telephone the men were ‘about to get on a plane to come back’, and that their morale was ‘particularly good’. He told BFM-TV the family had been aware of recent ‘contacts’, and had hoped they would ‘prove fruitful’, but that the news that his son was free was nonetheless a surprise.
The head of Europe 1 Denis Olivennes said he was overjoyed at the news. ‘I want to thank the authorities that have permitted their liberation, all those who mobilised, the families... the list is too long,’ he said. The four men’s liberation comes weeks after two Spanish journalists taken hostage in Syria by an Al-Qaeda-linked group also walked free. El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa, 49, and freelance photographer Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, 42, were released and handed over to the Turkish military last month.
They had been in captivity since September 16. Thanking ‘all those who contributed to the successful outcome’, the president said the men would return to France ‘in the coming hours’. He reaffirmed his ‘deep commitment to the freedom of the press, which demands respect for the security and integrity of journalists in their role of providing information.’ Hollande said his attention was now with two other French citizens still held in the Sahel region of Africa, reaffirming his ‘determination’ and the ‘relentless mobilisation of the state’s forces to obtain their liberation’. Among those still being held in Syria is US journalist James Foley, who had been working for Global Post, Agence France-Presse and other international media.