VILLACOUBLAY AIRBASE, France (Reuters) - Four French journalists held captive in Syria for more than 10 months returned home to France on Sunday, freshly shaved and beaming, where they were met at an airbase by President Francois Hollande, their families and friends.
Nicolas Henin, Pierre Torres, Edouard Elias and Didier Francois smiled at a crowd of journalists, some of them colleagues, after descending from a military helicopter at the Villacoublay airbase southwest of Paris.
“It’s a great joy and an immense relief, obviously, to be free. Under the sky, which we haven’t seen for a long time, to breathe the fresh air, walk freely,” veteran Europe 1 reporter Francois said in an impromptu speech at the side of his fellow ex-hostages and Hollande.
French authorities have released few details of their liberation, but Turkey’s Dogan News Agency first reported that an unknown group transported the journalists on Friday night to the southeastern border of Turkey, where they were discovered by Turkish soldiers.
After identifying themselves as journalists, the group was taken to police headquarters in Sanliurfa province and seen by doctors, Turkish authorities confirmed.
Henin told reporters on the tarmac that the four had “not always” been treated well and had been moved from place to place many times by their captors.
Visibly moved and flanked by his two young children, he said the hardest part was being separated from his family.
“What’s the best thing for a father? To have your two kids in your arms,” Henin said.
French authorities have not identified the journalists’ captors, but Dogan said it was the rebel group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was also on the tarmac to greet the journalists, told iTele that France had not paid a ransom but that discretion prevented him from providing many details about their captivity and liberation.
“France never abandons its own,” Fabius said, although adding, “we’re never sure if we’ll get our hostages back”.
Another 20 hostages from around the world, none of them French, remain in Syria, he estimated.
Fabius did not name the journalists’ captors but labeled them “terrorists.”
“The hostage takers are terrorists; the hostages were treated very harshly,” he said, adding that they were kept underground for their entire captivity.
Francois and Europe 1 photographer Elias were abducted in early June en route to Aleppo.
Henin, working for Le Point magazine, and Torres, for French-German television channel Arte, were captured later in June, but France did not announce their kidnapping until October.
Images from Turkish TV on Saturday showed the men, smiling and fully bearded, being escorted through what appeared to be an airport after they were freed.
Syria is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Last month, two Spanish journalists were freed after being held hostage in Syria since September by the ISIL rebel group.
In Mali, two French citizens remain missing after being kidnapped in 2011 and 2012.
Writing by Alexandria Sage; editing by Jane Baird