Freed Frenchmen home, Taliban claims prisoner swap
Two French journalists rejoined their families smiling and laughing Thursday after 18 months in captivity in Afghanistan at the hands of Taliban Islamists who said they freed the men in a prisoner-swap.
Cameraman Stephane Taponier and reporter Herve Ghesquiere, both 48, stepped into the sunshine at a military airport near Paris Thursday morning, hugged and kissed relatives and shook hands with President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"I'm hungry for freedom, hungry for love, hungry full stop," Taponier told France 3 television.
The two shed little light on the circumstances of their release, but in Afghanistan, the Taliban said in a statement it had freed the men after France agreed to let jailed Taliban commanders out of jail.
"France was made to accept the conditions of the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) and agreed the release of a number of mujahedeen commanders in exchange for the release of the journalists," it said.
Looking relaxed and healthy, the journalists told reporters on the tarmac they had not been mistreated by their captors, but did not enjoy Afghan mountain food and passed the time listening to the radio and doing exercises.
"We were locked up 23 and three-quarter hours a day with just two toilet breaks, dawn and evening," said Ghesquiere, looking tired but smiling and laughing at times.
"We were never beaten," he said, but admitted he had some "minor health problems" after his long ordeal.
"The food wasn't the hostage special, it was more the Afghan mountain special -- not much to eat and always the same thing ... It was really awful."
"We are very, very well," said Taponier. "We were never threatened, but the living conditions were still very hard."
The journalists, who work for state network France 3, were freed along with their Afghan interpreter Reza Din on Wednesday.
Taponier said that after having their hopes of release raised and dashed several times, they were finally given traditional white Taliban garments and taken on a long hike to a house where they were freed.
Two other Afghans captured with them had been released earlier, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said. He denied a ransom was paid and said Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai had helped Paris secure the Frenchmen's release.
French press citing unnamed officials reported a long negotiation process involving the French secret service, various intermediaries and a network of Taliban leaders.
Sarkozy hailed the return of the men who he said were detained in "a cowardly and unjust fashion", and congratulated "all the services" who played a part in freeing them, "especially the French military".
The two Frenchmen had become the longest-held Western hostages in the nation stricken by the war they were covering when captured on December 30, 2009.
The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan until a US-led invasion in 2001, had owned up to the abduction and accused the journalists of spying.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, killed by US forces in Pakistan last month, had warned the journalists' release would depend on France withdrawing its nearly 4,000 soldiers from Afghanistan.
Sarkozy announced last week that France would begin pulling out hundreds of troops this year in line with US withdrawals. Juppe denied the men's release was linked to this announcement.
A few months after the abduction, Sarkozy had said the two were to blame for venturing into the dangerous region, outraging their media colleagues who waged a continuous campaign to make sure they were not forgotten.
Ghesquiere said Thursday he remained devoted to war reporting despite his ordeal.
"I'm not likely to go back to Afghanistan tomorrow or the day after," he said. "But I want to do this job more than ever."
© 2011 AFP