Escaped French hostage back on French soil

9th January 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 9 (AFP) - A French hostage who escaped at the weekend after five weeks of captivity in Iraq arrived back in France on Monday evening saying he was delighted to "return to civilisation."

PARIS, Jan 9 (AFP) - A French hostage who escaped at the weekend after five weeks of captivity in Iraq arrived back in France on Monday evening saying he was delighted to "return to civilisation."

Looking tired, Bernard Planche, a 52-year-old engineer, arrived on a French military transport plane at a military base in the city of Orleans, south of Paris, and was greeted by Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and by his daughter and niece.

The Frenchman, who was abducted in Baghdad on December 5, escaped Saturday from a farmhouse west of the capital where he was being held, according to the US military.

He gave no details of his detention or escape, although he did thank French President Jacques Chirac.

"I am delighted to return to civilisation and to French soil," he said at the base.

The military said his captors had suddenly abandoned the farm to avoid a patrol of US and Iraqi troops in the area.

In Iraq, Planche worked with an aid agency which specialises in water distribution.

Planche ran away Saturday from a farmhouse where he was held after his captors fled US and Iraqi troops who were conducting a search of a rural area on the western outskirts of the capital, the US military said.

Iraqi security sources had earlier suggested that the hostage got away from a car after his kidnappers panicked at a military checkpoint west of the capital.

Planche got out through a window of the farmhouse after his captors suddenly abandoned the farm, Major Jim Crawford told AFP.

"When he realised he was alone and saw US forces in the distance, he escaped through a window and ran down the road," Crawford said.

"He had his hands in the air and, as he approached the US checkpoint, he took his shirt off to show he had no explosives on him," said the major from the 10th Mountain division.

US and Iraqi forces were searching the area after receiving information on the possible presence of arms caches and of a kidnapping ring in the area.

The former hostage then insisted on staying with US troops for six hours to help them hunt for his former captors.

Crawford declined to say of anyone was arrested, but he added that caches of weapons were found in the area.

Planche was later debriefed by US forces before being handed over Sunday to the French Embassy from where he was expected to travel home to France.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin thanked "the American authorities who gave their support" in the form of a "security operation in the suburbs of Baghdad," according to a statement issued in Paris.

The Frenchman, who was kidnapped from his home on December 5, apparently suffered a broken nose when his captors seized him.

But after his release, he was smiling and joking with the soldiers.

"He gave us information. He was able to recall all kinds of details," Crawford said.

He was held in a half-basement whose window was covered over by a wooden plank, but he was allowed to keep a diary and to listen to a radio.

His captors, calling themselves the Battalion of the Lookout for Iraq, in a video broadcast by al-Arabiya television had threatened to kill him if France did not "end its illegitimate presence in Iraq".

France, a staunch opponent of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, pointed out it did not have a military presence in the country.

On December 28, the Dubai-based channel had showed a black-and-white video bearing the group's logo, along with pictures of a man believed to be Planche on his knees with gunmen behind him.

Two days later, Planche's daughter and brother appealed for his release on the same channel, saying he was in Iraq only to help the people of the war-torn country.

After Planche's disappearance, French embassy officials said they were frustrated that the engineer had not taken greater care for his safety. He lived alone in a large house without guards, and had been warned by the embassy several times, diplomats said.

Three French journalists — Christian Chesnot, Georges Malbrunot and Florence Aubenas — were released by Iraqi kidnappers last year after long periods of captivity.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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