YAOUNDE (Reuters) - A French family of seven, including four children, have been released in Cameroon following secret talks, France said on Friday, ending two months of captivity in the hands of Nigerian Islamist militants.
Armed men on motorcycles snatched the family on February 19 while they were on holiday near the Waza national park in north Cameroon, some 10 km (six miles) from the Nigerian border.
“I spoke to the father this morning ... He told me how happy and relieved he was,” French President Francois Hollande told a news conference in Paris on Friday. “This is an immense relief. This will redouble our determination to free the hostages who remain.”
Eight French hostages remain held by al Qaeda-linked Islamist militant groups in the Sahel region.
Hollande said there had been contacts over the last few weeks to discreetly free the family under French terms and denied any ransom was paid.
“France has not changed its position, which is not to pay ransoms,” he said.
The father of the kidnapped family, Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, worked in Cameroon for French utility firm GDF Suez. He was kidnapped with his wife, two daughters and two sons, and his brother, who was visiting them on holiday.
“We are very happy to be released. I want to thank (Cameroon) President Paul Biya for making all the effort to ensure our release,” his tired-looking wife, Albane Moulin-Fournier, said on Cameroon television, holding her smallest child.
Both adult males of the family had thick beards while the children looked drawn, and wore flip-flops, knee-length trousers and tee-shirts.
Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, secretary-general of Cameroon’s presidency, said all family members were well.
State television showed the family descending from a plane where they were greeted on the tarmac by the French ambassador who took them to the embassy in the capital Yaounde.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was due to meet them there, a French official said, and they would be repatriated to France as soon as possible.
The release of the hostages is a rare piece of good news for Hollande’s government, which is struggling to cut unemployment and has been hit by a tax fraud scandal which has forced its budget minister to resign.
Mostly Muslim northern Cameroon is considered an area within the operational sphere of Islamist militants including Boko Haram, Nigeria’s biggest security threat.
Gunmen claiming to be from Boko Haram released videos of the family in March, threatening to kill them unless Nigeria and Cameroon released Muslim militants held in detention.
Cameroon denied it was holding any militants and it was unclear if any of the group’s demands had been met.
Additional reporting by John Irish and Brian Love in Paris; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Jon Hemming